The Truth About Authentic Leaders

Bill George, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
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The debate over which form of leadership works best seems settled, in my view. Most leading companies globally are focusing on developing “authentic leaders” within their ranks. Executive courses at Harvard Business School in authentic leadership development are oversubscribed and expanding every year. As the Harvard Business Review declared in January 2015, “Authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.”

In 2003, our book Authentic Leadership proposed a new kind of leader, whose character was the ingredient that mattered most—more than characteristics or style. We also challenged older models of leadership, including the “great man theory” and competency-based leadership models. Previous generations of business people spent more time trying to “market” themselves as leaders, rather than undertaking the transformative work that leadership development requires.

Critiques of authenticity

But recently three leading scholars at Insead, Stanford, and Wharton challenged the concept of authentic leadership. Like all movements—Harvard University Professor Michael Porter’s famous five forces of strategy comes to mind—growing acceptance of an idea often attracts contrarian critiques, which ultimately are healthy in clarifying our understanding.

In Leadership BS, Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer says, “the last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is authentic.” Insead’s Herminia Ibarra adds, “We have to find a way to fake it till we become it.” The most recent salvo comes from Wharton’s Adam Grant, who wrote in the June 5 New York Times, “’Be yourself’ is actually terrible advice… Nobody wants to see your true self.”

“Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviors carefully to be attuned to their audiences and to enroll their colleagues and teammates”

While these writings have garnered plenty of press attention, their critiques of authentic leaders reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of authenticity. Webster defines authenticity as “real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate.” It comes from the Greek word for author, which led author Warren Bennis to say, “You are the author of your life.”

Ibarra postulates two types of authentic leaders: “low self-monitors” and “high self-monitors.” Low self-monitors tend to say whatever comes to mind, whereas high self-monitors watch carefully what they say for its impact on others. This distinction creates a false dichotomy because low self-monitoring is the opposite of being authentic, and is a sign of immaturity and insensitivity to the feelings of others. Leaders who do this, such as telling a colleague, “I’d like to go to bed with you,” as Grant proposes, are anything but authentic.

Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviors carefully to be attuned to their audiences and to enroll their colleagues and teammates. They do so because they are sensitive to the impact their words and actions have on others, not because they are “messaging” the right talking points.

Ibarra’s second critique of authentic leaders is that they are often locked into a rigid sense of themselves, much like their immature teenage selves. This is the antithesis of authentic leaders, who are constantly developing themselves to increase self-awareness and improve relationships with others. They don’t hide behind their flaws; instead, they seek to understand them. This lifelong developmental process is similar to what musicians and athletes go through in improving their capabilities.

How leaders develop their authenticity

Rather than trying to redefine what it means to be authentic, research and leadership development programs should focus on how leaders develop their authenticity. Being authentic as a leader is hard work and takes years of experience in leadership roles. No one can be authentic without fail; everyone behaves inauthentically at times, saying and doing things they will come to regret. The key is to have the self-awareness to recognize these times and listen to close colleagues who point them out.

The essence of authentic leadership is emotional intelligence, or EQ, as articulated by Daniel Goleman. People with high IQs and low EQs can hardly be called authentic leaders. In contrast to IQ, which basically does not change in one’s adult lifetime, EQ can be developed. The first and most important step on this journey is gaining self-awareness.

In preparing to write Discover Your True North, my research team and I conducted in-depth interviews with 172 authentic leaders. This research highlighted the vital role of self-awareness in leadership development. Here are some recommended steps people undertake to develop a deeper understanding of themselves in order to become authentic leaders:

  • Explore their life stories and their crucibles in order to understand who they are. As my HBS colleague Lakshmi Ramarajan says, the process of learning, growing, and developing an integrated self is a process of construction and meaning–making. As leaders explore their life stories and crucibles, and process their experiences, they develop deeper understanding of themselves and feel increasingly comfortable being authentic. This is a lifelong journey in which we are always discovering the next layer, much like peeling an onion. As leaders discover their truth, their True North, they gain confidence and resilience to face difficult situations.
  • Engage in reflection and introspective practices by taking time every day to step back from the 24/7 world, turn off all electronics, and reflect on what is most important to them. This can be done through introspective practices that are growing rapidly in popularity, such as meditation, mindfulness, prayer, long walks to clear one’s mind, or simply sitting quietly and reflecting. The key here is set aside preoccupation with task lists, iPhones, and the latest news in order to reflect privately. In this way the urgent does not take precedence over the important in one’s life, and leaders examine how they are living their lives and engaging with the world around them.
  • Seeking honest feedback from colleagues, friends, and subordinates about themselves and their leadership. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to understand how other people see them, which is often quite different than how they want to be seen. To gain greater understanding of how they are coming across, authentic leaders obtain real-time feedback by listening to their “truth tellers,” who give them candid critiques about their leadership. Those that surround themselves with loyal sycophants, who only tell them how well they are doing rather than being brutally honest, risk going off track. Leaders also gather feedback through regular 360 degree reviews from peers and subordinates. The qualitative comments shared in 360 reviews can be of great benefit if leaders take them to heart, and genuinely try to change.
  • Understand their leadership purpose so they can align people around a common purpose. Purpose defines the unique gifts people bring to leadership challenges, through which they can align others with their purposes in order to create positive impact. This is far more important than focusing entirely on achieving success in metrics like money, fame and power, yet ultimately produces sustained success in those metrics as well.
  • Become skilled at tailoring their style to their audiences, imperatives of the situation, and readiness of their teammates to accept different approaches. There are times when leaders have to make difficult decisions that are sure to displease people, and they’ll need to give tough feedback. At other times they need to be inspiring, good coaches, and consensus builders. These flexible styles aren’t inauthentic if they come from a genuinely authentic place. In this sense leaders’ styles become the outward manifestation of their authenticity. As leaders gain experience and develop greater self-awareness, they become more skillful in adapting their style, without compromising their character.

What is needed now is a deeper understanding of how leaders become authentic, as they navigate the practical dilemmas and paradoxes they face. For example, Karissa Thacker’s recent book The Art of Authenticity takes authenticity to a deeper level by exploring topics like relational transparency and honest conversations, making peace with paradox, and seeking the truth.

My colleagues at HBS are working on the challenges of being authentic, such as how and when to be vulnerable, cognitive distortions, making meaning of who we are by integrating the constructed self with the true self—or True North—and going from purpose to impact. These are fertile areas for research by academics and in-company leadership experts.

Rather than creating false postulations about authentic leaders, we need to focus on how we can enable leaders to become more authentic, and give them the tools to do so. In this way authentic leaders will be able to create better lives for everyone they serve.

 

This article was written by Bill George from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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