Recently I realized that a lot of people are embracing authenticity out of a need for simplicity or transparency. Maybe this is a response to a (perceived) increased complexity. Maybe it is linked to the first level of adult development: socialized mind. I don’t know. But what hit me next, was that this need is also underlying the embracement of authentic leadership for many. And that could be a problem.
In line with my first realization it seems that those people are especially attracted and focused upon the second dimension of the authentic leadership model of Avolio et al. (2007): transparency. They focus less on the dimensions of self-awareness, ethical/moral behavior, and balanced processing (which I will explain in more detail later). And within the dimension of transparency, they like the idea that a leader will always say exactly what they mean, will always tell the truth, will always displays emotions exactly in line with the feelings the leader has. In their mind, authentic leaders will no longer demonstrate political behavior, will always put all their cards and goals on the table, and will no longer make things ‘unnecessary’ complex, and just honest and transparent. This is, however, a romantic, incomplete idea of authentic leadership. Let me call it, for simplicity reasons, embracing Authentic Leadership 1.0.
Obviously, I can only applaud that the need for authentic leaders is on the rise, as we have all seen what happens when leaders high on machiavellism or narcissism rule organizations, industries or countries. I am, however, a fan of Einstein’s quote: “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. In other words, if one understands the model of authentic leadership deeper, what I would call embracing Authentic Leadership 2.0. (although it is still the original model), you will be disappointed if you embraced it out of a need for simplicity, and this for at least 3 reasons.
First of all, underlying the idea of a leader who always tells the truth is the model of an heroic leader, full of courage, who sacrifices him or herself if needed. The problem with the heroic model is, however, twofold:
1) Sacrificing yourself, e.g. by losing your job, because you told the truth, is not an act of leadership because nothing will have changed when you have been removed out of the system. And mobilizing others to take responsibility for change is a core element of leadership.
2) Heroic leadership assumes that the world comes along with labels about what is right or wrong and that always telling the truth, for example, is always the best thing to do. There are, however, no rules that always apply in every situation. As Joseph Badaracco points out so nicely in his book ‘Leading Quietly: an unorthodox guide to doing the right thing’, if you hide Jews in your house during World War II, and you lied about it against the Nazis would that have been a bad thing? Would you have shown more leadership by telling them you did? By telling them the truth? Obviously this is an extreme example, but assuming that there are rules that shouldn’t sometimes be bend is not recognizing the complexity of the (organizational) world we live in. Not doing the effort to see how the rule can be applied with the necessary creativity, how it can be reframed in a situation when needed, is actually not showing any respect for that rule, it is an act of laziness. And not showing respect for rules and being lazy is something we generally do not associate with leadership.
Second, what does it mean and what does it take to say exactly what you mean, to always tell the truth? It requires in the first place a lot of self-awareness (which is the first dimension of authentic leadership of Avolio et al., 2007). According to Badaracco (2002, p.170) the outcome of sufficient introspection and self-awareness is that almost all of us come to the conclusion that we have mixed motives. Almost all of us want to live lives of integrity, but almost none of us aspire sainthood; almost all of us want successful careers, but almost none of us want to sacrifice our livelihoods to do the right thing. Self-interest and altruism run together in most people’s veins.
Almost all of us have mixed motives and that is good thing, he says, because it helps us understand the complexity of the situation. It helps us to do the right thing, and stay alive in the process (rather than being kicked out, resulting in no change). It helps to think deeper about what the right thing to do is, and to use and channel our lower motives for the higher ones. By doing this we are making decisions based upon our core values. And that is exactly what is understood under the third dimension of ‘ethical/moral’ of authentic leadership. In sum, being aware and recognizing that we are no saints and that we have mixed, complicated motives/values as human beings that we want to honor, does not make our lives simpler. In contrary, this is why some of the problems at work keep us up at night.
Third, trying to honor your mixed motives, rather than choosing the easy way out by shouting out that something is wrong, often means that you have to engage in political behavior such as trying to buy a little time. You do this because things are complex and unclear in the corporate world, and you want to get more information before you decide and take an action. You want to drill down. And being open and getting more information to understand the different points of view of an issue is the last dimension of authentic leadership (i.e. balanced processing). But even when you have gained time, by e.g. a combination of quick fixes and strategic stalling sold as care and due diligence for the problem, you are, as an authentic leader self-aware enough to accept that even then you still have blind spots. Therefore you move with prudency, and you will not give away all your cards from the start, despite the frustration this can create. You will escalate gradually because the world is too fluid, because “leadership is a process, often a long and oblique one, not a single dramatic or courageous event” (Badaracco, 2002, p.143).
In sum, trying to be authentic, and especially trying to be an authentic leader sounds simple, but is anything but simple.
Avolio, B.J. , Garnder, W.L., & Walumbwa, F.O. (2007). Authentic leadership Questionnaire. Mindgarden.
Badaracco, J.L. (2002). Leading Quietly. An unorthodox guide to doing the right thing. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.