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‘Authenticity’ Under the Microscope: What Does It Mean for Executives?
We humans like the word “authentic” because we hate being deceived. When something or someone isn’t as portrayed, we misplace trust and waste our time. The meaning of “authentic” in the sense of being real and being entitled to acceptance as true dates back to the mid-14th century. Over the intervening years the word has picked up connotations of trustworthiness – that someone or something isn’t just a particular way on the surface, but down to the very essence.
The concept has taken on revived importance in the 21st century, possibly due to the massive amounts of information the internet age has brought us. No longer is it easy to hide behind a façade of competence, because eventually someone will crack that façade, and everyone will find out, since information travels at the speed of electrons now. Here are some thoughts on authenticity and today’s executive.
Impediments to Authenticity in Leadership Positions
First, today’s leaders often encounter obstacles to authenticity. With expectations higher than ever of our leaders, today’s executive must “walk the talk,” or they can count on being exposed. As one possible example, think of the executive who touts the importance of work-life balance, but who arrives at the office at the crack of dawn and stays late every night. What kind of mixed signals do employees pick up from that?
Additionally, most everyone – executive or not – dislikes acknowledging weaknesses. But the leader who gives the impression of being superhuman sets an unhealthy precedent. By appearing “perfect,” a leader can inadvertently give their “less perfect” subordinates a great excuse not to try. After all, few people can be as “perfect” as their leader appears. Typically, it’s not easy for leaders to know whether they’re perceived as authentic unless they ask and make clear that they want honest feedback. This can be challenging, but worthwhile.
Characteristics of the Authentic Leader
Leaders who can truthfully label themselves as authentic are self-aware enough to understand their strengths, their shortcomings, and the fact that they have emotions like everyone else. An authentic leader doesn’t come across as an entirely different person in private as in public, and they don’t panic and try to cover up mistakes or weaknesses.
While authentic leaders are results-driven, they understand that authenticity is a process, and not a result. And they’re not afraid to lead with their heart either. This doesn’t necessarily mean that authentic leaders have to be all warm and fuzzy, all the time, but that they demonstrate empathy and understanding, especially when difficult decisions must be made.
Authentic Leaders Have True Impact
Sometimes, it’s not possible to gauge a leader’s authenticity until after the fact. We have all at one time or another felt duped by someone we admired who turned out to be someone completely different from who we thought they were. One question we can ask along the way is whether a leader (whether that’s an executive, a teacher, a mentor, or a political leader) is making an impact on others. Authentic leaders are fundamental to genuine and lasting change, and if they’re not, they’re just entertainers and not leaders.
Coaching to Overcome the “Authenticity Paradox”
The so-called “authenticity paradox” partly stems from our sometimes unreasonable expectations of those elevated to the highest leadership positions. Unfortunately, when a new CEO or other leader admits they need help or are otherwise in awe of their responsibilities, they can lose credibility with important people.
Fortunately, more businesses now realize that their top executives don’t spring fully-formed and fully-prepared from their previous position, and offer leadership coaching to help them address their needs as they cope with all their new responsibilities. Being an effective executive requires being able to step outside the “comfort zone,” and needing help for this is 1) nothing to be ashamed of and 2) something that can be effectively addressed by a competent executive coach.
Authenticity is something we expect in the products we buy, the people we get to know, and the leaders we trust with our loyalty. But there’s nothing magical in attaining the rank of a high-level executive that confers authenticity. It’s something that has to be tended and worked on like a garden, and that’s true for anyone who strives for authenticity.