Authentic Leadership: Hopeful Buzzword?

In his July 2012 blog, Bill George, CEO Guru of leadership authenticity wrote:

“Nine years ago today the New York Times favorably reviewed Authentic Leadership, my first book. At the time “authenticity” in leadership was not a well-established idea. Many people asked, “What is an authentic leader?” although the concept seemed self-evident to me as being genuine, real and true to who you are. In those years authenticity has been popularized by Oprah Winfrey and others, as people search for the real thing.”

The  real thing. What is that, exactly? Georgeʻs mainstream definition of authenticity in corporations is appealing: values-based, personal integrity, and above all, a consistent performance of self that can be trusted. Who wouldnʻt want to be – or follow – such a leader? We crave such leadership, picking at the hypocrisies, inconsistencies and false-face of the leaders we donʻt like, and polishing a pedestal for leaders who seem to be able to attain the high ideal of authenticity. Many very smart leadership theorists argue that authenticity generates solutions for organizational effectiveness and sociopolitical sanity.

As regular American folks, whether we consider ourselves leaders or not, we all hope to become authentic, because itʻs the height of individual development in our culture, bringing (we hope) wealth, respect and influence. Weʻd earn these benefits because we have expressed our originality in our authenticity, because (fundamentally) have the courage to be genuinely who we are. Unfortunately, most of us only achieve the minimum authenticity — saying whatʻs on our mind, and damn the torpedoes. Thatʻs the pop culture “authenticity” that tends to become the unexamined and sabotaging default — or in Carl Jungʻs terms, the shadow — that haunts applied authentic leadership.

The shadow of the ideal is the very American dogma that we deserve rewards simply for being ourselves, and that individualism fuels great leaders insights and achievements. Good leadership always takes a lot more than self-awareness. On top of a strong understanding of self, effective authentic leadership requires altruistic values, a commitment to empowering authenticity in others, and the charisma and clarity to mentor and inspire followers to live up to the same values that matter to the leader. To give credit to the gurus of this leadership theory, empowerment and inspiration definitely make for healthier communities and companies.

But what gurus of authentic leadership donʻt talk about  is that you need power to make it work. Wherever that power comes from (money, class, political clout or star-charisma), you need to legitimately claim CEO status in whatever field youʻre leading in order to define the values, identities and practices that will be em-powered and inspired.  Otherwise, you canʻt achieve any consistency or visibility in your authentic performance.

Think about it. The higher up in status we are, the more protected we are, especially in American business. We can even, to some degree, create the roles we want to perform, and live with them long enough that they become our identity. They make us feel authentic, inside and out, and itʻs not hard to be consistent. But the lower in status we are, the less likely we are to be able to define ourselves in our jobs and the dominant culture. In a company where the CEO is an authentic leader, secretaries and janitors still need to keep quiet and tow the line. They donʻt have the luxury of being who they are inside and out, especially at work.

What does this say about our hope for authentic leadership to save organizational culture? That itʻs better than nothing, but still doesnʻt take into account the dominance of social and cultural roles over our individual performances of who we are. If we canʻt factor that dominance into the mix, all we have is a hopeful buzzword.


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