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Does being authentic hurt?

July 11, 2012

I can’t keep up. Just when we are learning as leaders that being authentic is the name of the game, there is an ever-increasing amount of bashing going on about how authenticity hurts.

To lead effectively, it is difficult to garner the trust of others (and their committed and engaged followership) when one is being inauthentic. Humans can tell when other humans are faking it. Or trying to be something they are not.

When did the pursuit of authenticity become permission to be disrespectful to others? Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Maybe I’m a little defensive. We just added the competency of Authentic Self Leadership to our Women in Leadership InstituteAccelerated Leadership Development Model and corresponding assessment. In fact, we decided (after much debate) to make this the foundational competency of the Institute model. Why? After working with women leaders for well over a decade, we have found that engagement and motivation (never mind professional fulfillment) correlate directly with one’s understanding of themselves and their purpose. When we are achieving for achievement sake, we eventually burn out. When we pursue careers that don’t take advantage of our innate strengths, but focus on those that we struggle with, we burn out.

We, at Linkage, define Authentic Self Leadership as an understanding of oneself in order to have the courage to live your leadership vision with integrity and honesty. We believe (and I believe) that leaders can’t afford NOT to pay attention to what really makes them tick. What specifically have you done professionally where you have felt engaged, excited, even (dare we say it) joyful? Do more of that. Understanding and being authentic is a requirement for fostering relationships that are trusting. If people don’t believe you, chances are, they won’t follow you (or they won’t for very long.)

Somehow, authenticity became all about: “I get to behave however I want because that’s who I am.” Let’s separate what it means to be authentic from what it means to be disrespectful. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines disrespect as “speech or behavior which shows that you do not think someone or something is valuable, important.” I guess the argument about “too much authenticity” is about leaders believing that they–in the spirit of being “authentic”–have the right to treat others however they wish to. Let’s change the conversation, and talk about a full respect workplace- where no one has the right to be spoken to (or to speak to another) in ways that are below the lines of respect. No yelling. No snubbing. No public degrading. No temper tantrums. I maintain that you can be direct, honest, even experience feelings of anger toward someone, and maintain a respectful style of communication that is authentic.

I doubt if very many leaders, in the pursuit of understanding their “authentic self” came to the conclusion that they are most engaged and excited and joyful when they are making other people feel small. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most leaders who treat others disrespectfully are either: a) unaware of it or b) know but don’t care. If they are unaware of their impact, shame on the people around them for letting it happen. If they know but don’t care, it’s time for the leader to start caring (despite the fact that I specialize in coaching difficult leaders to care about their impact on others and change their behavior, I will refrain from offering advice on the topic. Perhaps next week…)

Let’s stop the bad press on authenticity, and start talking about what needs to happen alongside the pursuit of self understanding: honest dialogue about and consequences when leaders treat others disrespectfully.

Do you really think Steve Jobs would have been less successful if he consistently treated others respectfully? I don’t.

About the Author:

Susan Brady is an expert in driving revenue for organizations through the implementation and execution of strategic business development and marketing activities. She is an engaging speaker, coach and teacher, and has deep experience working with executives in a variety of contexts. Prior to re-joining Linkage as Senior Vice President, Susan worked with Mobius Executive Leadership, a premier leadership development consultancy and spinoff of the Harvard Negotiation Project where she coached executives, and led strategic marketing and business development activities.

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