Plenty of people say it. Plenty say it’s important. Very few actually know what it means or how to actually practice it.
I know this from experience. This topic comes up in nearly every SENSEI LEADER workshop. I also hear it shouted from the platform at nearly every leadership event I attend––and plenty of them don’t know what it really means either!
It is important to be authentic––if we’re talking about authenticity in the right context.
When I hear someone trumpet the paramountcy of authenticity, the very next words out of said pundit’s mouth are usually, “Just be yourself!”
I’m polite so I don’t shout out what I’m always thinking: “But what if you’re a jerk?!”
No––authenticity is not just being yourself. Beside my obvious objection, the best leaders are those who embrace the idea that perfection is not a destination––it’s a never ending process. This means that whoever I am right now is not who I want to be tomorrow. I want to learn, grow and develop into a better me. I’m just not satisfied just being myself––whatever that is today.
There are also too many people who equate authenticity with passion. They believe that authenticity means really believing in what you’re doing––being enthusiastically committed to the cause.
That’s great––except when your beliefs are, well, wrong. If you don’t have empirical support for your beliefs, being authentically committed won’t do you any good at all. In fact, they can cause you a lot of damage to yourself and the people who trust in your leadership.
Now to be fair, it’s difficult to pin down a truly objective definition for authenticity. Believe me, I’ve read lots of them! Philosophers tend toward the “true to your inner self” theme rather than being buffeted by the winds of outside influences. Psychologists have a wide range of definitions too, but there is one strain that seems to lean toward a working consensus that I believe has the most useful application in leadership…
It’s about NOT being self-delusional!
Psychologist Stephen Joseph expressed it nicely in Psychology Today:
“Authenticity is ultimately about those qualities that show healthy non-defensive functioning and psychological maturity.”
Fortunately, he shared some of those qualities:
- Have realistic perceptions of reality.
- Are accepting of themselves and of other people.
- Are thoughtful.
- Have a non-hostile sense of humor.
- Are able to express their emotions freely and clearly.
- Are open to learning from their mistakes.
- Understand their motivations.
Those are some pretty useful guidelines for leaders!
It’s worth taking a closer look at our obsession with authenticity––because it is a really can help us be more effective leaders. It’s about trust.
In leadership, authenticity is not just what we think about ourselves––being true to ourself. Our authenticity as leaders also depends on how others see us. It’s important that the people we serve perceive us as authentic because it builds trust.
If we think about it those terms, the most important aspect of authenticity is consistency. Consistency in this sense is absolutely inseparable from openness and integrity.
People will not trust you if they think you’re wearing a mask. If you’re constantly putting on an act in different situations, or for different people––they’re not going to rate you authentic and they’re not going to trust you.
Be consistent in your words and actions.
Be consistent in your responses to different people in similar situations.
Be consistent in how and when you praise and correct.
Be consistent in your personal decorum––your manners. That is, be as polite to the janitor as you are to the CEO.
Let’s put a fine point on authenticity as it relates to a leader.
An “authentic” leader is someone with the ability to attract WILLING followers––note the emphasis on the word willing. And someone with the will to serve those followers.
By contrast, the dictator commands and controls through fear, force and coercion.
If you are truly a caring, human-centric leader then yes. Being an authentic leader may mean being true to yourself, but it’s not enough. Look at it this way, “being yourself” is necessary condition for authenticity, but it’s not a sufficient condition.
If being true to yourself means resorting to deception, both deceiving yourself and others; or it means that you’re a compassionate leader at one moment and a tyrant the next, then no. You are not an authentic leader no matter how true to your nature you may be.
You are an authentic leader when, and only when you care.
If you truly care––if you’re willing to earn the respect, trust and loyalty of the people you serve. If you dedicate yourself inspire, empower and guide others to their very best…
You are authentic.