If authentic leadership is not only an effective but a virtuous approach to leadership, then it is something we should all find appealing. But when it's defined as being true to oneself, I wonder if it does not unwittingly create more problems than it solves.
The Meaning of Authenticity
Authenticity: being true to a fixed, inner self-identity, or being faithful to our experience as an evolving self? Is this question a "straw man," or does it have a more profound importance? If there is an essential self within, and if being true to self is what's most critical to effectiveness and virtue in leadership, then introspection would seem to be the preferred pathway to leader development. Alternatively, if authenticity is about being faithful to experience, then it would seem we must consider how we attend to and process our experience, but what experience?
There is an inner-outer direction of reference here. The inner direction places a central role on the person of the leader as a factor in leadership. The outer direction, the reference to the field of experience, creates a focus on the surrounding environment—what is happening, who's involved, what's at stake, and how the situation makes a claim on us to assert leadership. Notice it is a claim on us, not merely on me. The individual leader or person who would like to contribute to the leadership challenge is now situated.
Now I find that neither being true to self nor being true to experience is sufficient. Being true to role and being true to responsibilities of role are also important. After all, we are, as agents of management, situated in a here-and-now practical context in certain roles that bear explicit and implicit accountabilities for action. Even more broadly, there are fiduciary duties to our stakeholders to which we must be true. And it is not about me, it is about we. The leadership challenge is about how we as an aligned force act, some more in the foreground, others perhaps more in the background.
There is an organizational set of norms, values, strategic imperatives, and role mandates that do and should define the greater, practical whole of enterprise action to which we, individually and collectively, must be responsive and true. Our identify as leaders is shaped importantly by how we attend to and participate in this larger scheme of purpose, normative judgment, and action. To posit some inner north star anchored in the person is not merely to oversimplify what it means to be authentic and to lead, it errs in the direction of over-privileging a heroic individual kind of leadership, which is more the stuff of legends than reality.
The Essential Imperfectability of Human Nature
The research on narcissism and workaholism in executive leadership reminds us that a good deal of career advancement and personal achievement by many individuals is a function of compensatory motivation. That is, we are sure that we are quite special, deserving of more than others, or we are striving to prove ourselves worthy of some elevated status, often as a way of overcoming fears of failure, self doubts, or some underlying feelings of inadequacy. Thus, beneath the mask of heroic leadership lies a more complex reality, a self that is fallible, and that includes a darker side.
I believe that a more accurate description of true self-identity is that it is an evolving project that bears within it threads of continuity, many of which form early in life (temperament, personality, interpersonal tendencies, moral and non-moral values). Other threads of identity form along the way, into adulthood, as we establish ourselves in the larger world through role-taking and commitments to others (at work, at home, in our community).
These threads of continuity that constitute a project of self-identity are seldom fully integrated in conscious self-awareness. Some exist and operate more consciously, usually the ones that we wish to feature in our role-taking as virtues, i.e., charismatic, truth-teller, decisive, and responsible. Others function less consciously. They include qualities that may fuel achievement drives, but may also reveal vulnerabilities to being unkind, mean, impatient, and too self-interested.
Authenticity as spontaneous, unfiltered expression of self can have mixed success. That's because our highly virtuous self-concept is not all there is. Yes, at times, perhaps even most times, "being real" may look to ourselves and others like fidelity to positive and constructive values and beliefs. At other times, especially for those of us with ambitions to lead and make an impact, equally authentic parts of our self reveal less positive qualities that we would seldom associate with good leadership.
Don't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good!
The role and expectations of leadership will always be aspirational. The more we share opportunities to assert leadership, the less heroic we need to be. The less heroic we need to be, the more fully human we may find ourselves being. The more human we find ourselves being, the more we will encourage expression of the potential to lead in others.