Perhaps no other attribute is considered more important to effective leadership than social awareness or empathy, one of the four components that make up emotional intelligence (the others are self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management). Social awareness is our ability to recognize others' feelings, emotions, and behaviors and to use that information to guide our own thinking and actions. Empathy is more of a tool of social awareness; it's our social "radar", enabling us to pick up on cues that others provide us, both verbally and non-verbally.
As leaders, social awareness is the skill we use when speaking to an employee and sense - based purely on his facial expressions - that he may be confused. It's what we use when we walk into the office mid-day, watch and hear the people, and appreciate the company's strong culture. And social awareness is in full use when we discover that a person is struggling in their job because she isn't the right fit for it (on a side note, self-awareness is the realization that we hired that person and are more responsible for putting her in that position than she is).
If you go one step further, someone with high social awareness also has the ability to adjust his/her behavior (self-management) based on the cues received from others. That, one might believe, is a positive trait and one that would likely lead to stronger relationships. After all, if leadership is defined as the ability to move people in a common direction, it would require the ability to adapt to our people's different motivations, work ethic, ambitions, habits, communication styles, etc. And the only way to do that - effectively - is to pick up on the cues that people give us...to use our social awareness.
Meanwhile, we live in a time when authenticity is hailed as a virtue: "be who you are"; "let your true self show"; "be comfortable being yourself". In a vacuum, that makes sense. But does it make sense in the dynamic context of leadership and, more importantly, interpersonal relations? If one is being completely authentic - "what you see is what you get" - could that mean that s/he is not fully employing social awareness or empathy?
The more I have studied and practiced emotional intelligence, the more I have concluded that authenticity is selfish. It's a cop-out, a means to defend our behavior when we subconsciously know that being empathetic is the right approach. It makes us feel good because, true, it represents who we really are. But if we believe that every human being has character flaws and is not perfect, then should those imperfections appear when we're trying to lead people as we build our companies?
Mind you, I'm not suggesting that we "fake it" as entrepreneurial leaders. What I am suggesting is that, as leaders of growing companies, we are in a very challenging position of having to move multiple people and personalities in a common direction, one that periodically changes as the business changes. Every one of those people is unique is his or her own way. Therefore, we must take different approaches to move the different people. Being authentic, however, implies that we're using one approach and it's the one that comes most naturally to us and that we feel most comfortable with.
To me, that's contradictory to empathy, contradictory to leadership, and entirely selfish.