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Authenticity condundrum: leadership skill or reason to be a jerk? Understanding the role of authenticity in effective leadership isn't always straightforward.

A man walks across a plaza but his shadow shows something very different and ominous: leadership authenticity.

Authenticity is a critical concept in contemporary leadership. Just look at any of the literature on leadership over the past 20 years. In fact, it could be the most critical piece of building trust. And trust is the foundation of the pyramid described by Patrick Lencioni if you want to create a functional team.1

My problem with this idea has always been in the form of the following question, “What if who I really am is a jerk?” Should I then strive to be an authentic jerk? In other words, is it okay that you’re a jerk as long as you don’t try to hide the fact?

Let’s consider a story about Joseph.

Joseph is a brilliant engineer

Joseph has risen through the ranks of his organization because he is a brilliant technician. All of his colleagues are in awe of his amazing mind when it comes to engineering problems. The problem with Joseph is that he rubs people the wrong way. He is short tempered and quick to criticize his direct reports and his peers for their contributions that he deems as pathetic attempts at solving problems. No one wants to confront Joseph on his behaviour toward others because his engineering skills are so valuable to the organization. Therefore, his abrasive way of interacting with others is tolerated.

Joseph attended a leadership course where he learned that authenticity was an important aspect of being a good leader. Joseph concluded that as long as he didn’t try to hide the fact that he was short tempered and impatient and continued to let everyone around him know his true feelings that he was being authentic.

Or was he?

The authenticity conundrum and effective leadership

Jeff Pfeffer from the Stanford Graduate School of Business argues that the last thing a leader needs to be at “crucial moments” is authentic.2 When we ask participants in our leadership courses to identify and describe the best leaders they ever had in their careers, they rarely describe the person who was authentically a jerk.

They mostly describe the person who was an authentic human being. They described leaders who cared about them as human beings, readily admitted their own mistakes, included them, shared information with them, extended power to them, acknowledged their good work, inspired them and helped them to stretch to become better at what they did.

None of this can happen when you’re being negatively impactful.

Authenticity in leadership

Here at EITC we subscribe to an emotional intelligence model of leadership. And in this model authenticity is one of four central dimensions.

Authenticity in leadership is more about being authentically human. It’s a way of being that leverages that which makes us human – emotions and the need for connection. If we want to be the type of leader that is authentic about our emotions, then we’ll be more in touch with them and more communicative about them. If we want to increase connection, we’ll be the kind of person people want to connect with.

Therefore, we won’t be jerks. We won’t negatively impact our team members. And we’ll share our feelings, because we know when someone is feeling one way and pretending they feel another way. Those leaders feel inauthentic to us.

Authentic leadership is about being authentically, and irresistably, human. Team members crave belonging. Belonging happens when leaders present themselves as whole people with real lives. And belonging happens when leaders see their team members as real, whole individuals with real lives.

We still encourage managing emotions appropriately. But we’re suggesting that effective leaders can be more human and open themselves up to human connection in the workplace by sharing some of what takes place beneath the surface. Knowing what to reveal and what not to reveal is a matter of experience, mentorship and ultimately, leadership wisdom.

Employees know when you’re being honest about what you’re feeling and they know when you’re being real. We all want to work for real people who have integrity and a sense of purpose.

Team members crave belonging and connection.  Tweet This!

Humans are imperfect beings and will make mistakes. Therefore, a critical capacity in authenticity and leadership is the ability to be transparent about mistakes. When leaders acknowledge their blunders, apologize and make them right, loyalty is strengthened and team members feel respected.3

There are six emotional intelligence competencies4 that are strongly correlated to effective authenticity. Of those six, Self-Regard and Self-Actualization are two factors helpful to improving authenticity.

But more on that later.

Let me know what you think. Leave a comment below.

  1. See also, for example, The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self, by Karissa Thacker, http://ca.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1119153425.html
  2. Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School, argues that authenticity is about being audience aware. http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/the-truth-about-authentic-leaders
  3. For more on authenticity, see also, “The Authenticity Paradox,” https://hbr.org/2015/01/the-authenticity-paradox
  4. We use the MHS Model of EI based on the original work of Dr. Reuven BarOn.

2 Responses to “Authenticity condundrum: leadership skill or reason to be a jerk? Understanding the role of authenticity in effective leadership isn't always straightforward.

  1. […] best posts are real and fully human. They do not pretend. Care is taken, of course, not to be alienating and especially to be audience aware. We still edit and review. But, like good creative nonfiction, […]

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