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Berlin Brief

Revisiting Authenticity and Adaptability in Leadership

February 11, 2016

People are increasingly called upon to choose sides. Are you an authentic leader – or not? Are you committed to guiding your thoughts and actions as a leader with your core beliefs and values – or to being true to what given work or life conditions demand? Is your priority as a leader to be authentic to yourself or to adapt to changing situations? Gray areas and qualified responses give way to the desire by many consultants, writers and leaders to position themselves distinctively vis-à-vis the now commonplace notion.

More than a buzzword, “authenticity” has become the stuff of management incantation, offering the promise of personal transformation and organizational success. The ubiquity of the term has made authenticity a fetish. Lost in many treatments of the word itself is the variety and nuance of different meanings and priorities that have evolved around it over the last two decades. “Authenticity” is increasingly brandished as an all-or-nothing badge, a singular process or a quasi-transcendent status of “being yourself” always and everywhere.

We need to get beyond the word itself to return to some of the more fundamental matters of values, character, ethics, actions and finally aspirational development that it has helped to prioritize and clarify. To begin doing so, the following clarifications can help.

1. Our Authentic Selves Are Complicated

The aim of authentic leadership is not to discover a single unchanging style or persona that one subsequently dons in every situation. Rather, authenticity is about consistency and alignment in the various roles performed by leaders while facing dynamic and fast-changing challenges. The better one understands oneself and one’s values in the world, the more nimbly one can respond to different situations. Indeed, as convincingly argued in the valuable forthcoming book by Karissa Thacker, The Art of Authenticity, we do well by being true to our multiple selves across the many contexts in which we live and work.

2. It’s Not Just Taking Filters Off and Acting Out

Even astute critics sometimes impute an entirely internalized nature to authentic behavior. MIT’s Michael Schrage, for instance, has recently criticized authentic leadership as a “narcissistic tendency” of being true to oneself ”despite external pressures.” I sometimes encounter this concern while working with creative leaders who conflate authenticity with the unfettered self-expression they associate with creativity. “Being authentic is much more than ‘being yourself,’” says Gareth Jones, co-author of Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization. “If you want to be a leader, you have to be yourself – skillfully.” In other words, we might helpfully recognize that authentic leadership is as fundamentally social leadership as self-direction.

3. Reflect and Do, Do and Reflect (and Repeat…)  

Herminia Ibarra captures a central leadership insight in her essential 2015 book, Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader: the advantage of acting first as a basis for learning and growing rather than reflecting exhaustively on how best to behave before doing so. In ways, such an approach corresponds to the reality of rapidly iterating and experimenting with product or service innovation. Yet just as occurs in that process, there need to be guiding values, aspirations and ethics to orient the ongoing development work. Different leaders will inevitably strike different balances between reflection and action – based in personality, experience, and circumstance. Introverted and extroverted leaders, for example, may act and think in different proportions, particularly in relating to other people, thought they can both be effective. The point is not that authentic leadership is necessarily marked for all by a singular process but, rather, that individuals develop their own, inevitably varied capacity and commitment to act and reflect consistently.

4.  Moving Beyond ‘Authentic versus Inauthentic’

The soundbyte binarism of “authentic or not” is at the heart of what plagues discussions of authenticity. In their earlier work, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, released in an new edition last year, Goffee and Jones advanced a wise and pragmatic idea: “adaptable authenticity.” Of course leaders need to adapt and respond to shifting challenges in order to do what needs to be done. What authenticity proposes is that such changes and evolution are not arbitrary or without consideration of one’s own ethical beliefs or wider values. How one changes and grows and which roles one performs in which situations are, indeed, guided by values which one can be aware of and faithful to.   

5.  Recognizing the Importance of Other People – Not Just Oneself

Shifting focus from individual leaders to leadership and its necessary attention to relationships has been another, often neglected way to expand thinking bout authenticity beyond the inward-looking individual. “Authentic leaders don't exert power over people; they empower other people to lead aligned around a purpose and a set of values.” Bill George said in a recent interview. Bruce Avolio is among the researchers who have consistently sought to illuminate how authenticity marks the relationships between followers and leaders. To do so, they have looked beyond the buzzword to examine some of the constitutive elements of relationships – including trust, ethics, influence and motivation, engagement and empathy – that mark them as authentic rather than merely instrumental.  

6.  ‘Authentic Leadership’ is More than a Cottage Industry

To paraphrase Jeffrey Pfeffer’s recent formulation in Leadership B.S., some decide whether to be authentic to themselves or authentic to the situations in which they find themselves. His challenge underscores how different leaders must focus differently on themselves and situations in order to be effective – a reality that, paradoxically, requires precisely the greater self-awareness that authentic leadership strives for. How they might develop that awareness is the target of Pfeffer’s more damning critique: namely, the cottage industry of consultants and trainers who promise, like self-help gurus, to empower leaders with truth and authenticity to become more successful. While it is certainly appropriate to criticize those hawking superficial notions of authenticity as narrowly self-serving, rejecting all approaches to “authentic leadership” on the basis of this subset overstates the argument.

7.  Like Most Approaches to Leadership (and Life), No One Size Fits All

A more expansive approach to authentic leadership ultimately allows for both wide-ranging responses to dynamic situations and diverse individual approaches by individual leaders to knowing, being true to, and aligning their own values and actions. We recognize, for instance, that the diversity of leaders and their personality types, learning styles, ways of working, decision-making inevitably translate into varied and evolving engagement with different situations. The same is true for the values that different individuals bring to bear on specific situations and how each of us goes about understanding and acting upon them as leaders. “Authentic leadership is inherently a developmental process,” Bill George wrote last year, upon the release of Discover Your True North, the updated an expanded edition of his classic released last year. Too often misunderstood is that that process varies enormously for each of us.  

If we move beyond naïve or romantic approaches to authenticity, in which leaders strive to achieve a static and one-dimensional measure of self-awareness and actualization (or don’t), we can appreciate it is less an end in itself than an ongoing process of growth. That process, moreover, unavoidably entails continuing adaptation of our individual actions, thinking and feeling. Each of us necessarily goes about that process of development differently. The point is that we commit, in our own ways and in response to various leadership and life situations, to consistently growing ourselves while serving others and a shared purpose.

David Slocum

Faculty Director
Berlin School of Creative Leadership
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