I’ve been thinking about authenticity as it relates to leadership, and to our lives in general.
I have a confession to make! Several years ago I used to be quite negative on the value of authenticity for leaders. More recently, however, I’ve shifted my position towards seeing it as not only valuable but perhaps essential (with some caveats).
I’ll share some my thinking here, and would be interested to know how the concept of authenticity influences your leadership approach and broader life.
Reasons I think authenticity can be problematic for leaders:
1. Leaders can use authenticity as a justification for unprofessional behaviour — e.g., ‘My personality profile says I’m a ‘Red’ meaning I say what’s on my mind, so… [insert brutally blunt comment].’
2. Leaders can use authenticity as an excuse for complacency about growth and development — e.g., ‘I have to be who I am, so I can’t change, learn or become something different.’
3. It’s very difficult to know your true self — people are not very self-aware, we possess multiple identities (think parent, professional, community member etc), and our sense of self changes over the lifespan.
4. Authenticity conflicts with fulfilling role demands — most roles/professions have standards of behaviour which necessitate leaders doing things they don’t want to do.
Reasons I think authenticity is valuable for leaders:
1. Authenticity promotes bonding and trust with followers — it encourages openness and vulnerability, which in turn fosters trust, emotional bonds and strong relationships.
2. Authenticity unlocks personal intrinsic motivation — doing things that are important to you is often animating in powerful ways.
3. Authenticity preserves energy — impression management drains our resources over time.
4. Authenticity motivates others — leaders need to arouse emotions in others to maximize the energy they stimulate in others; articulating sincere feelings conveys emotional content that inspires.
Reasons I think authenticity might be essential:
Getting very big-picture for a moment… I recently started reading the work of existentialist writers from the mid 20th century. In a nutshell they assert that in a modern world most people no longer rely on religion to infuse their lives with meaning. We now have to create our own meaning, which is freeing, but also a burden. One of the ways we can live a life of meaning is to be authentic, to do the things that are most deeply important to us.
In the end, perhaps one way to resolve these cross-currents is to acknowledge that while we cannot always express authenticity day to day (given our role demands, and the realities of social interactions), that we owe it to ourselves, and perhaps the people we lead, to infuse the balance of our lives with meaning by making authentic choices whenever possible.
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has worked with and advised leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He’s also partnered with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.