One of my colleagues - someone I’ve known for 20 years and respect greatly - recently posed a question about whether authenticity is truly a virtue of good leadership, or is really a cop-out that weak leaders use to rationalize their poor interpersonal skills. His post was very thought-provoking, as he often is. I agree with him about many things, including that a good leader sometimes has to filter himself in order to be sensitive to others. And I’m sure that some (poor) leaders do use authenticity as a cop-out. But I thought I’d share a different perspective on the idea that authenticity and leadership are potentially incompatible.
Over the course of my career I have had the pleasure and the pain of working under many different leaders. You name it - I've seen them all. Entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, micromanagers, visionaries, slave-drivers, charismatic team builders, Napoleons, and so on. Of all of them, two specific leaders come to mind. Both were very socially aware and had high emotional intelligence. Neither was authentic, and they both told people what they thought they wanted to hear. Both lost the trust and respect of the people they were leading, and both ultimately failed as leaders. Conversely, the best people I've ever worked for didn’t coddle me. They were tough. Really tough. It wasn’t always pleasant. They brought out the best in me, and they made me better. And they were all unapologetically authentic.
The point is that leadership is about many things. Authenticity is just one of them. Social awareness, self-management, and adaptability are also important as my friend points out. But there are other skills that are equally or perhaps even more important. Leaders must have vision. They must be able to get the right things to happen. They must navigate difficult situations and make critical decisions during times of crisis. They have to to tell people what they need to hear, not always what they want to hear. Most importantly, they have to harness the talents of the people they are leading. At the end of the day leadership requires a wide variety of skills, styles, techniques, and approaches in different situations. Adjusting to these situational demands doesn’t preclude you from being true to yourself in the process.
Authenticity allows you to play to your strengths and it requires you to acknowledge your weaknesses. This by itself is valuable. Don’t be afraid to be authentic. Just don’t do so at the expense of adaptability or awareness, and don't lose sight of everything else in the leadership skills mix.
Alan Yefsky is a JuntoMentor. His post was written in response to Raman Chadha's "When It Comes To Leadership, Being Authentic is Being Selfish"