Our relationship with authenticity can be complicated. For some, the idea of being transparent and open in dealing with others is terrifying. Others insist on wearing their pulsing heart on their sleeve, exposed for all to see. Most of us vacillate between some degree of openness and pulling down the shutters, depending on our situation and with whom we are engaging.
In this uncertain era of fake news, incessant and accelerating social media flow and the exponential rise of artificial intelligence, it is perhaps not surprising that there is reinvigorated interest in seeking to understand authenticity and the role it plays in leadership.
In her 2014 Article The Authenticity Paradox, Herminia Ibarra puts forward a case against a simplistic application of authenticity in leadership and suggests that to do so can ‘hinder your growth and limit your impact’. In this case, a simplistic application includes full disclosure and ‘maintaining strict coherence between what you say and what you do’. Unfortunately, since Ibarra illustrates the point by using a simplistic interpretation of authentic leadership herself, the critique feels altogether too easy and unsatisfying. She wrongly implies that authentic leaders are overly introspective, somehow less likely to experiment with styles and apt to fail if they show vulnerability. The key message seems to be that the risk of being real is too high and that in leadership it may be better to learn to ‘fake’ it rather than try to authentically engage with others.
But the idea that we can be duped by simulated authentic behaviour is fundamentally unnerving. We are hyper-sensitised to the sales pitch that feigns authenticity in an attempt to win our trust and our dollars. When we perceive phoney interaction from others, we generally react by either turning on the fakery ourselves and dancing a disingenuous relationship or by pulling back to a safe emotional distance and engaging in superficial communication only. If we are honest, many of our workplace interactions operate in this way and for much of the time that may be just fine. But is it okay if you are in a leadership role?
Karissa Thacker, in her 2016 book, The Art of Authenticity, points out that the ‘level of psychological sophistication and depth required to connect, relate, and achieve in partnership with others has accelerated in the past 15 years.’
Social media has drained the swamp on us all, publicly exposing a lot more of who we are than was previously the case. Flatter structures and the rise of the agile knowledge worker, un-beholden to any organisation, has greatly increased the leadership challenge of influencing others. But perhaps the strongest driver of follower demand for leadership authenticity is the need to re-affirm meaning in our lives. In the sometimes surreal and fearful Blade Runner-esque world we live in, one where the line between fake and real is increasingly blurred, we are drawn to leaders we perceive to be the real thing. In these times, Thacker believes ‘cultivating authenticity is the key to flourishing.’
In our work with hundreds of leaders, sometimes in one-on-one coaching situations and at other times intact top teams, five key elements emerge which usefully describe Authentic Leadership.
As we integrate this model into our work with leaders, it’s apparent that all five elements need to be present in some degree for strong authentic leadership to exist. For example, there are plenty of leaders who walk-the-talk and act in ways aligned with their personal values, but do not cut it as authentic leaders because they don’t actively listen to what others have to say, or they do not process feedback effectively, or they are not capable of identifying and constructively having conversations that really matter.
Being true to ourselves may bring us closer to being authentic individuals but it is not enough to make us effective authentic leaders. To be an authentic leader, who genuinely inspires and positively influences others, followers must experience all five elements through leadership behaviour. The good news is that, provided there is a level of awareness and motivation, most of us can learn to modify behaviour and become more authentic leaders.
The most contentious and challenging element of authentic leadership is having the courage to be vulnerable. The idea that showing vulnerability is an essential leadership quality sits uncomfortably with a lot of existing and aspiring leaders. Especially for men, who still overwhelmingly make up the majority of the corporate leadership population, vulnerability is most often equated with weakness. To avoid being perceived as weak, leaders ‘armour up’ and erect a variety of vulnerability shields. The irony is that openly acknowledging vulnerability requires far more strength than armouring up.
We know from Brene Brown’s transformational research that, while vulnerability never feels comfortable, it is the ‘birthplace of creativity, innovation and trust’. It is also at the heart of the feedback process so essential for creating learning organisations, able to quickly adapt and continue to flourish. Receiving feedback well and growing requires us to be vulnerable.
Brown highlights the common and paradoxical belief that ‘vulnerability is the last thing you want to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.’ We look for signs of vulnerability in others to confirm the humanness that enables us to connect. Without the courage to be vulnerable, leaders cannot truly connect, cannot build strong relationships, cannot engender trust, cannot create a culture that genuinely encourages talent to take risks and accept accountability, and ultimately, cannot effectively lead. Or to re-quote Thacker, without vulnerability leaders ‘cannot achieve the level of psychological sophistication and depth required to connect, relate, and achieve in partnership’.
Leaders who are not authentic will continue to exist and some will even succeed for a time. They may have good ideas, be great problem solvers, exert positional power to make things happen or even perceive themselves to be the most stable genius in the room. But they will not be great leaders.
Increasingly, leaders who work towards authenticity and engage with vulnerability will outperform, especially over the longer term, because social and technological advances are converging to create a hunger in us all for authentic leadership. Talented followers will choose to work with authentic leaders and demand that they keep it real.