Has leading authentically got limits?

Over the last few weeks I have been reading regular bulletins from a leader of a small organisation- part of an attempt to help the organisation connect across silos.

I was curious about the reactions both positive and negative. Then it came to me that what is absent from these chatty updates speaks as loudly to people in the organisation as that which is included.

We encourage leaders to be authentic, genuine and relational. This leader is apparently doing just that. The newsletter is engaging and informal. People are acknowledged and successes are celebrated in a relaxed style.

However, over time a pattern has emerged; who gets mentioned, and with great enthusiasm is deserving and clear. But in their absence, who is not mentioned, or cited less heartily is also clear. Enthusiastic descriptions sit in stark contrast to judiciously expressed approval. The difference is palpable; the absence is as obvious as the presence.

Both call loudly to the reader as partiality and preference creep through the spaces of the cleverly crafted phrasing.

My problem is not this bulletin per se. It’s another example that leads me to think more about authenticity in leadership.

Most leadership gurus agree that authenticity is the essence of good leadership. (I agree). Sometimes, however (as in my example above), being authentic may not lead to the intended result. Why is this?

Leaders are human and there is always partisanship in human relating. Leaders gather around them people they like; people who agree with them or imitate them, who follow their orders, stroke their egos and energise them. They equally (at worst) ignore, or employ practiced civility with those that don’t.

Often this is unintentional – effects of the “rules of thumb” or mental short-cuts that dominate our human brain function. We gather like-minds around us, we can only see what we know to look for, and we don’t know what we don’t know. Mental shortcuts or cognitive biases shape everyday actions. There are behavioural biases, memory biases, social biases, attribution biases – psychology is compiling increasing lists of them.

My question is how authenticity fit into this? One could argue that expressing one’s inherent and unavoidable cognitive limitations is authentic …isn’t it?

Or is authenticity also in the eye of the beholder? After all looking in the mirror in the morning and saying, “I’m authentic today” won’t necessarily make it with other people. There is always an “other”. Authenticity is a relational event.

Any communication needs to consider the “other” – in this case the readers. The words ‘author’ and ‘author-ity’ are connected and to misuse author-ity is misplaced leadership.

  1. A leader who writes without insight of his/her own cognitive biases needs to question who s/he is writing/speaking for; his or her own ego or the organisation?
  1. A leader without “outsight” forgets the audience – the people s/he serves and writes/speaks for their own self-aggrandisement.

In both the leader maybe authentic, but s/he is not practicing leadership. And, as most of us know, being authentic (and being a leader) is very hard work :)