I began our discussion on the topic “Leadership” last week by defining the term ‘leadership’. Many of you would have noticed that I use the word ‘authentic’ leadership.
In case you may not know what I mean by authentic leadership, I will also define the word ‘authentic’ in relation to leadership.
The concept of authenticity has been extensively discussed from a psychological and psycho- analytic perspective. Much of this literature focuses on the complex, maybe endless, process of self-discovery. From that rich seam of research we take three critical elements.
First, authentic leaders display a consistency between words and deeds. Leaders who do what they say, who practice what they preach, are more likely seen as “genuine” and therefor authentic.
Nothing betrays the aspiring leader quite so much as the attempt to persuade others to do things that they would never do themselves. But an ability to do what you say is not enough on its own.
The second element of authentic leadership is the capacity to display coherence in role of performance.
In other words, despite the unavoidable need to play different roles at different times for different audiences, authentic leaders communicate a consistent underlying thread. They display a ‘real self’ that holds these separate performances together.
Closely linked to this is the third and final element. Authentic leadership involves a kind of comfort with self, which is perhaps the hardest aspect of all to attain. This is the internal source from which consistency of role performance is drawn.
The concise Oxford Dictionary defines that which is authentic as having ‘undisputed origins.” And in a leadership context, this is what followers are looking for: a set of performances that have a common origin.
The first two of these three elements have received considerable attention. The distinction between espoused and enacted values was first drawn many years ago by Harvard Business School’s Chris Argyris.
It has been most recently revisited with a new twist in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s discussion of the ‘knowing-doing’ gap. Coherence in role performances through the ‘invention of self” is a recurring theme subtly explored in the extensive work of warren Bennis.
Comfort with self, the third theme, relates to the interplay between personal origins and destinations. It is less widely discussed in the leadership literature but connects with a rich tradition in sociology.
Yet, despite the intense work of many scholars, these insights have remained largely unexplored in understanding the significance of authenticity as it defines the relationship between leaders and followers. In the last five years, there has been a real interest in authenticity as a property of the leader.
However, there has been little discussion of authenticity as enacted in social relationships. So what does all this mean for those who aspire to leadership? The simple answer is that to be a more effective leader, you must be yourself-more-with skill.
Real leaders are true to their principals, willing to admit mistakes and accept responsibility and capable of emerging whole and sound when tested. Authenticity is a particular signature of real leaders – a connecting thread that makes every step in their life journey into a unified whole.
It brings all the other qualities of leaders together in a satisfying combination, just as a special spice or a distinct herb can create harmony among the various ingredients that give a meal a memorable flavour. Authentic leaders are able to connect with others so the other are eager to embrace the message and vision.
When we think of leaders who have inspired millions to join great causes, we usually think of men and women of deep authenticity – leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, with his profound personal commitment to Indian independence and non-violent resistance; Nelson Mandela, who sacrificed 27 years in prison before seeing his vision of a free, multiracial South Africa realised; William Wilberforce who led the twenty-year fight to end the British slave trade and Mother Teresa who gave her life to help the poor women of India.
When I interview job candidates, I like to ask, “Tell me your life story. Explain how one experience led you to the next and what it all means.’ I am often surprised by the number of candidates who are unable to explain how the various things they have done fit together; sometimes they are unwillingly to acknowledge mistakes or to take responsibility for their choices.
By contrast, true leaders welcome having their decisions scrutinised and tested. They understand that a failure of decision is not necessarily a failure of character, and that every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. This understanding, too, is an aspect of the authenticity that is a hallmark of the leader.
Authenticity is closely intertwined with integrity and ethics. People who are authentic are unafraid to reveal their true selves – and this can be the case only when they feel sure that they have done what is right according to their best lights, rather than fudging the truth, cutting moral corners or taking advantage of ambiguity to benefit themselves at the expense of others. We often describe people of integrity by saying ‘They have nothing to hide’.
And the expression highlights the transparency that goes with integrity and depends upon it.
By Rev. Eric D. Maefonea