The Pursuit of Authenticity

‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes’ ~ Marcel Proust

Welcome to a new year and a new decade. If the start of the year is a guide, then the 2020s will prove to be every bit as unpredictable, challenging and full of change as the previous two decades, possibly more so.

The traditional end-of-year break provides us with an opportunity to get some much-needed rest, spend time with loved ones and plan the year ahead. Such plans are full of good intentions but often flounder under pressure from the day-to-day and long-held habits of behaviour. However, rather than focus on the challenges of changing habits, we thought that it would be more interesting to focus on a much talked about, but poorly-understood aspect of leadership – Authenticity.

Especially in the context of leadership, authenticity is all the rage at the moment. Business schools run courses specifically focused on developing authentic leadership; the Millennial and Gen Z workers prize it highly; and it’s seen as the counter-balance to lapses in conduct, governance and to improving corporate cultures more generally. Many organisations, and entire industries, have seen a collapse in public trust in recent years, mirrored by reducing trust within organisations, both heightening the call for the greater emotional intelligence, integrity and self-reflection that authenticity implies.

Being authentic … to what exactly?

Yet, whilst it’s easy to see authenticity as a panacea for our age, it’s a slippery concept to identify clearly. At a recent panel event run by Coode, we asked three prominent leaders from different fields what authenticity meant to them in the context of leadership. Their answers were illuminating.

The first response, from a prominent CEO who had led a FTSE 100 energy company for more than a decade, emphasised the need for authenticity to oneself. He claimed that being natural, open and human with colleagues is all important. Effective organisations and healthy cultures rely on trust and the more ‘real’ leaders can be, showing their humanity and emotions the more people can relate to them and consequently trust them. Likewise, people can immediately sense when a leader is being inauthentic (‘I can smell a fraud a mile away) and will only ever give them compliance/obedience and never discretionary effort or loyalty.

The second response, from a world renown high altitude climber who has summitted Everest 13 times, emphasised context. When above 8,000m (in the ‘death zone’), his usually consultative leadership style changes to be more emphatic and directive. Not only is time more limited at these altitudes, the consequences of incorrect decisions are more grave, to coin a phrase. He backs his considerable experience and his role as an expert/guide, altering his leadership style to remain ‘authentic’ to the needs of the expedition, based on the conditions.

Thirdly, the CEO of an international marine engineering and technology company talked about the need for a leader to be authentic to the mission that the organisation is on. As the climber had emphasised, leadership is contextual, needing to be adjusted based on the conditions but also on the mission, so she argued that a leader must be ready to lead in a way that the mission requires (not necessarily in a way that felt ‘natural’ to them). This perspective throws up an interesting emphasis on the extrinsic (‘outside-in’), rather than just the intrinsic (‘inside-out’), implying that it is not enough to be oneself as a leader, a leader must also do what is required.

The differences in these responses shine a light on the difficulty of pinning authentic leadership down into a simple definition but also implies that there is a place for all three orientations to authenticity: to self; to the context and to the mission.

First turn inwards

Descriptions of authenticity usually emphasise the need for a high level of self-awareness and acceptance of oneself as building blocks to emotional intelligence, being seen as authentic, and thereby building trust. Being ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’ is essential, yet many leaders are neither familiar with their inner landscape, nor comfortable with self-reflection, especially not in public. Such leaders see leadership as something that is done to others, rather than the result of an ongoing inner investigation.

Too often, this crucial aspect is missing from leadership development programmes and expectations of senior leaders. In fact, the more senior leaders become, the more certain they are expected to sound, just at the moment in their careers where they cannot be expected to have all the answers and should perhaps be focusing more on asking the right questions.

With the past year littered with corporate scandals and collapses, it’s difficult to avoid thinking how different it could have been if the leaders of the organisations in question had first turned inwards, seeing their primary role as one of developing trust, transparency and developing greater authenticity within their organisations.

Be yourself, but in service of …

A last thought on the topic of authenticity, and it’s a health warning:

It’s popular to talk about ‘bringing your whole self to work’, which attempts to reset the de-humanisation of the workplace in modern times and create workplaces that are more engaging empowering and cognisant of the value of diversity. Laudable in intention, the idea can be unhelpful if not directed by either the context or the mission, preferably both.

The highest articulation of authenticity (and integrity) therefore, reflects an alignment across what is natural (self), what is required (the context) and what is done (in service of the mission), building not only trust but also progress towards a desired destination. If any one of those three factors is misaligned, positive effect is diminished or lost.

As you return to work this week, maybe even with well-intentioned resolutions tied to your effectiveness as a leader, keep in mind authenticity, what it really means and what it requires of you.

Happy New Year.


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