Authenticity and Leadership
People don't expect perfection, but do want leaders who are real
THE LEADERSHIP CREDIBILITY you earn through your professional competence (knowledge and skills) and your personal conduct (behaviors) is the single most important factor that influences people to be willing to follow you. It is not, however, a once-and-done issue.
Inauthentic leaders are exposed
Think of leaders you have known up close or from a distance through history or the news who started out with flying colors only to flame out in failure. They projected strength, confidence, and competence. They appeared to be effective leaders and people bought into them. Eventually, though, their lack of substance was exposed, and they failed.
Why were followers taken in? It’s simple. The qualities that initially encourage credibility are easy to counterfeit. With people’s natural tendency to be attracted to the Conventional Model of a leader (charismatic, assertive, confident, etc.), a would-be leader with sufficient emotional intelligence can figure out what the ingredients are and project those qualities.
For a while, that is. Eventually, reality is exposed. Henry B. Thayer, who led AT&T back in the 1920s, offered a word of wisdom:
“It is easy to fool yourself. It is possible to fool the people you work for. It is more difficult to fool the people you work with. But it is impossible to fool the people who work under you.”
The ancient Romans had a proverb: “Truth is the daughter of time.” Over time, the truth comes out. If you want to succeed as a leader long-term, you should take that proverb to heart and pursue one of my Leadership Propositions: The character of leadership is authenticity.
I find confusion over the meaning of authenticity, especially as it relates to transparency. These concepts are often mingled or considered interchangeable, but that is a mistake. My working definitions of each:
Transparency means “you can see everything.” Like the view through a clean windowpane, nothing is hidden. You can see everything, and what you see is what you get.
Authenticity means “what you see is real.” There is no promise that you can see everything, but you can be confident that what you see is true. It’s not fake, misleading, or deceptive. It’s solid and dependable.
Both are appropriate in their place. There are organizational categories where transparency is exactly right and necessary. But there are certain leadership applications where practicing complete transparency is a huge mistake — especially where you are revealing everything you think and feel.
As a leader your attitudes are more contagious than covid, and therefore what you reveal in public must be by careful calculation. If you are feeling negative and discouraged and show it transparently, you can create a storm of negativity and discouragement throughout an entire organization. A head cold in the captain becomes an epidemic in the crew.
Be aware and wise in what you say and do. Your job is to impart optimism about your eventual success. I define optimism as realism with confidence. Be authentic — real, dependable, and optimistic — and you’ll build your followers’ confidence.
Authenticity must be modeled
As a leader, you get the kind of behavior you demonstrate. Corporate cultures are ultimately developed by the behaviors of their leaders. On the positive side, this is how a company’s culture (or a subculture, such as a department or office) can be built in a desirable direction. But always keep in mind that undesirable attitudes, words, and behaviors will also be reproduced down the ranks.
Here are three areas of behavior you can work on that will increase followers’ trust in your authenticity as a leader.
1. Integrity in word and deed
Most people think of honesty and ethical behavior when they hear the word “integrity.” That is certainly true, but there are other applications of the concept in leadership.
Intellectual honesty, which means being honest with yourself. The person willing to fool him- or herself has gone wrong from the start and cannot lead others with integrity. That failure of integrity will color and shape everything else.
Showing loyalty to people, especially in their absence. Unless there is a genuine reason to talk badly about others in their absence (such as a managing or coaching situation), failure here undermines people’s trust in your authenticity.
Keeping your word, doing what you say you will do. Slip-ups in this area can cost you credibility quickly.
Being predictably “you.” There is no personality type or temperament you must have to be an effective leader. Followers can adjust to a wide variety of styles in leaders, from the loud and boisterous to the quiet and introspective. What followers cannot deal well with are leaders who ride a roller-coaster of moods. Followers will adjust to your personality and style as long as you are consistent in them. Leaders who are volatile and moody undermine their leadership credibility.
Establishing and defending values for your organization or team. When you clearly state principles, then hold everyone, including yourself, accountable to them, you prove your integrity is authentic.
2. Abundant and clear communication
Visit any organization and listen to people long enough to find out what bugs them. I will venture a bet that one of their chief complaints is lack of communication from leadership. And yet, in those same places, I’ll also bet that leaders think they communicate enough. It’s almost a universal organizational virus. When you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate some more. About what?
Your core values, philosophies, and principles. Those require continual reinforcement and protection, or they are subject to dilution and decline. That’s why one of my convictions is “Never waste a meeting.” Anytime you have a captive audience, whether a planned meeting or an impromptu breakroom conversation, use it as an opportunity to build and reinforce your culture.
Focus and priorities. People want to know, “What are the main things? What outcomes are most important? How should I decide between several things to work on?” Leaders are responsible to define for an organization or team the main things and give a ranking of priorities so people can make decisions about their time and efforts. Lewis V. Gerstner, Jr. asserts, “Lack of focus is the most common cause of corporate mediocrity.” As a leader, you must provide that focus.
3. Vulnerability, which means:
Being approachable and receptive. Demonstrate that you want to hear what people think and it is safe to tell the truth.
Listening. The best leaders are great listeners. Your people have intelligence, talents, and creativity to offer. They see things that could be of value to your mission, as well as things that need correcting or fixing. A know-it-all leader who thinks they have all the answers and intelligence required makes the grave mistake of ignoring potential contributions of the people. That’s a foolish waste of your greatest resource.
A sense of humor. Humor can be one of your greatest tools to help people keep or regain perspective, and to deal with stress. In fact, research has shown that teams that exhibit the most frequent occurrences of laughter are also the highest producing. This includes laughing at yourself.
Owning mistakes. People know you are imperfect and make mistakes. Are you mature and honest enough to admit it without excuses and own responsibility?
It may seem counterintuitive, but there is power in vulnerability. In my leadership development classes through the years, participants have reported that some of their most valuable insights came from times I departed from the prepared material and told stories, many of which highlighted my failures and mistakes. When you share with people stories about the times you blew it, they can identify with you much better. They see that you, too, have walked a path of development, and that encourages their hope that they can do the same.
People do not ask that leaders be perfect or beyond having needs. They do want, however, leaders who are authentic ─ real, reliable, and human enough to relate to. Li