What does it take to be a leader and for leadership to show up? (Part II – Authenticity)

Leadership matters.  Whilst there are many ways of grappling with leadership, I value the ontological lens and in particular the ontological model of leadership that has been developed and is being taught by Werner Erhard et al. In this post I continue the conversation on being a leader (and leadership) that I started in the last post.

Warning: authenticity is not an easy conversation

Today, I wish to grapple with authenticity. To grapple with and get authenticity one needs to grapple with human existence (being and doing).  And in particular one needs to suspend one’s existing listening (how one thinks of, relates to) of authenticity.  Furthermore, it takes courage as the conversation of authenticity/inauthenticity unconceals that which we are committed to keeping hidden.  If you are not up for this today then I suggest that you go and do something else.  If you are up for the conversation then let’s begin.

What constitutes authenticity in this ontological model of leadership?

At a superficial level being authentic is being genuine, being real -“the real thing”.  Dive into this, grapple with this, and you are likely to find yourself grappling with the question “How does a human being determine when he/she is being genuine, being real?”  Put differently, “Genuine/real with regards to what exactly?”  Think of it this way,  determining whether this iPad before me is a genuine Apple iPad is a different realm of enquiry to determining if I/you are being genuine/real/authentic in the way that I/you show up in the world.  Yet we need to ring-fence it if we are to grapple with it.

In the ontological model of leadership, Werner Erhard et al are clear on what constitutes authenticity.  They define authenticity as:

being and acting  consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for others, and who you hold yourself out to be for yourself”. 

Notice that central to this definition is ‘who you hold yourself out to be’: not your personality, not your thoughts, not your feelings, not social convention…… How to make sense of ‘who you hold yourself to be’? Think of it as a declaration that you make, a stand that you take on yourself, a commitment to a set of values and/or specific future.

Authenticity is central to leadership and being a leader

How to position the importance of authenticity to leadership?  Perhaps it is best to share the words of Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, Harvard Business School Professor of Leadership, and best-selling author:

“After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity.” 

I find myself to be in agreement with Bill George, which is why I have put authenticity at the centre:

Werner Erhard et al write:

“Being a leader requires that you are absolutely authentic, and true authenticity begins with being authentic about your inauthenticities, and almost no one does this.”

Did you get that?  The access to authenticity is being authentic (confronting the truth) about where/how you are being inauthentic (not being/acting in accordance with ‘who you hold yourself out to be’).  Yet, almost no one does this.  Do your remember how the business world reacted to Domino’s Pizza decision to come out in 2010 and tell the truth about their pizzas? Surprise, bafflement, astonishment: What, you are going to own up to the fact that your pizzas taste like cardboard!

Inauthenticity is ubiquitous

Inauthenticity is the default setting and state of human existence. You, I and just about everyone is being  inauthentic – at the very least in some ways, at certain times, with certain people and in certain situations.  To date I have distinguished two kinds of inauthenticity.

First, there is the kind where I, you, sacrifice our personality, character, spirit, stand in response to external pressures: the pressure to appear to be a certain kind of person, the pressure to adopt a particular mode of living, the pressure to ignore one’s own moral and aesthetic objections in order to have a more comfortable existence. If you take the time to reflect and are willing to be open to that which shows up then you will see where and how often you have trodden this path.  Else read Sartre’s novels – they provide a great access to the inauthentic mode of being/living.

The second kind of inauthenticity is of the kind which is normally hidden from us.  This kind of inauthenticity lies in the realm of what we don’t know that we don’t know: we do not have access to our real reasons for being the way that we are being, acting the way that we are acting, and we ignore crucial facts about own lives (and the world we find ourselves in) in order to avoid facing up to and confronting uncomfortable truths. Spend some time in the counselling room and you will see this vividly: you cannot help seeing how the human being is blind to certain aspects of him/herself. Or just watch the TV series “The Office”.

Heart of the matter: we refuse to confront our inauthenticities

Imagine that you are driving a car and you find that you have a flat tyre.  Having a flat tyre is not an issue provided you are willing to acknowledge and confront the fact that you are driving a car with a flat tyre.  Acknowledging and confronting the fact creates an opening for you to take effective action: to replace or repair the flat tyre.  It is the same with inauthenticity: inauthenticity is not an issue if you and I are willing to confront where/how we are being inauthentic.

Yet inauthenticity is an issue.  It is an issue because you and I are not willing to confront our inauthenticities.  Here is what Werner Erhard et al have to say on the matter:

“..because we avoid at all costs confronting our inauthenticities, we are consistently inauthentic about being inauthentic – not only with others, but with ourselves as well.” 

If you find this assertion hard to stomach then allow me to share with you the conclusion that Harvard Professor Chris Argyris came to after spending 40 years studying human beings and organisations:

“Put simply, people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting, and they way they really act.”

Want to be a leader? Generate the courage to be authentic about your inauthenticities

By now it should be clear that being authentic is absolutely essential to being a leader and the exercise of leadership.  It should also be clear that the default setting of human existence is inauthenticity and as such inauthenticity is ubiquitous.  So one critical challenge of being a leader is to life oneself up from this fallen state of inauthenticity.  This is how Werner Erhard et al put it:

“If you cannot find the courage to be authentic about your inauthenticities, you can forget about being a leader……..The actionable access to authenticity is being authentic about your inauthenticities..”

As a pragmatic course of action it means that you must:

Be willing (and proactive) in discovering and confronting your inauthenticities – where in our lives you are not being and/or acting consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for others AND who you hold yourself out to be for yourself; AND

Tell the truth (to yourself and the appropriate people) about where you are not being genuine, real, authentic – the appropriate people tend to be the one’s that you are most likely to resist telling the truth to.

If you are willing to take this on then take a look at these areas

By virtue of human there are certain domains of life that suck us towards/into a state of being inauthentic. So if you are up for being a leader (or simply up for a life of freedom, self-esteem, courage and peace of mind) then take a look at the following:

Most of us are driven to look good and avoid looking bad.  Werner Erhard et al put it this way “.. most of us have a pathetic need for looking good, and almost none of us is willing to confront just how much we care about looking good..”  Look, how many of us are afraid to ask a question or voice our opinion for the fear of looking stupid, the only one who does not get it?  I say the reason so many of us insist on being right (rather than admit we are/were wrong) is to look good and avoid looking bad.  Where are you sacrificing your authenticity simply to look good and avoid looking bad?  If you do the work you will find a gold mine of inauthenticity here; it would not be going to far to say that wanting to look good and avoid looking bad runs us!

Every single one of us wants to be admired (to be recognised as a person of worth/significance/importance/high status), and yet almost none of us is willing to be with and confront how desperately we want to be admired.  And how readily we will give up our authentic voice, our stand, in a situation where we perceive that being straightforward, honest, genuine threatens us with a loss of admiration.

In many situations, many of us want to be seen as being loyal members of the group even when we are not.  How many of us are playing at being loyal simply to avoid the consequences (loss of admiration, looking bad, being made out to be wrong, being punished) of being perceived as being not loyal, not a team player.  Have you noticed how easily you will sacrifice ‘who you hold yourself out to be’ for the sake of fitting in, being admired and rewarded?  This is how you get ‘groupthink’ and the ‘Bay of Pigs’ fiasco and many others like it in organisations.

The good news if you are up for being a leader

So far this post might just show up in your listening as ‘bad news’ and leave you deflated/resigned/cynical.  So I want to share another quote from Werner Erhard et al:

“We are all guilty of being small in these ways – it comes with being human.  Great leaders are noteworthy in having come to grips with these foibles of being human – not eliminating them, but being the masters of these weaknesses when they are leading.”

And finally

If you wish to get a taste of authenticity/inauthenticity (and its importance to the human condition) then I recommend reading Book VI:The Russian Monk, Chapter 1:The Elder Zosima and His Visitors, Section (d) The Mysterious Stranger, from Fydor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece: The Brothers Karamazov.  If you have the hardback edition by Pevear and Volokhonsky then the page number is 301.

In the next post in this series I will take a look at the third foundational strand of the ontological leadership model: being committed to something bigger than oneself.

For those of you who have made it this far, I thank you for putting into this conversation that which it takes to be in this conversation.  I am grateful that you exist and that I have the privilege of being in this conversation with you.  I look forward to listening to your perspective, your experience on authenticity.

Posted on October 17, 2012, in Leadership / Change / Transformation and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Maz, I am more than happy to admit that there are times when I am “inauthentic”, when I keep my mouth shut for fear of looking stupid,and when I go with the herd when I really believe I shouldn’t.

    However, recognising that I, that we all, do that and it is part of human nature how do I change it? Is it simply a question of picking my battles?

    James

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    • Hello James

      I’d say that being inauthentic and being ‘out of integrity’ are the default modes of human existence – at least in the societies I have experienced and the people that I have come across including myself. Many of us are tempted and do silence our authentic voice and self-expression simply to fit in, be accepted, be approved of….

      How do you and I become authentic given that the default state is inauthenticity? Great question. First, you and I have to be committed to being authentic. And that means declaring who you are as a stand. Which means answering the question: who do I declare myself to be for myself and for others? If you say, for example, that you stand for being a great father. Then you have to spell out what that means in terms of how you show up in the world: how you are being (e.g. calm, helpful, inspiring, encouraging….) and what you will do (e.g. spend time with them doing x,y, z).

      Once that is in place you have to be present to the fact that inauthenticity is always creeping in. And as a result you have to build in practices that alert you to where inauthenticity had crept in. One way is to take a regular look at where you spend your attention, time, money. Another way is to encourage / ask for / be with honest feedback from the people around you. They are the ones that are most likely to provide you with access to what you don’t know that you don’t know including where you are being inauthentic. You see it is possible for you to be with your children without being with your children and kid yourself that you were with your children.

      Next, you have to generate the courage to tell the truth. Wow, I declared myself to be a stand for my children and I notice that I have actually been focussed on my work and have not spent the time with my children. Or I notice that I generated being a stand for my children because I thought that would win me love/approval. And what is true for me is that my children simply do not matter that much to me, other stuff matters more.

      Authenticity/Inauthenticity is not about picking one’s battles. Authenticicty is a choice like the choice about becoming pregnant and becoming a mother. Once you make that choice you make that choice. And you live that choice come what may. For example, I made the choice to give voice to my point of view whenever I am working as a member of a team. And to give voice to my point of view coming from a context of service/contribution rather than looking good or criticising others. That is what I do. And when I do not do it I notice that I experience discomfort – like being a liar/thief/cheat. Who did I lie to? Who did I cheat? Who did I steal from? At a minimum from myself. And arguably from my team members.

      I hope that helps.

      Maz

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  2. Hi Maz,
    I agree that being authentic is something that we should all strive for and something that is central to leadership. However, could the the model you are discussing be as easily applied to a despot as it could be to a democratic leader and does assume a net positive societal benefit? This may be wrong and I am willing to be corrected but was something that I thought I’d raise with you to get your thoughts on.

    Adrian

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    • Hello Adrian
      Great question and observation.

      Authenticity is about being/behaving in line with who I declare myself to be: “being and acting consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for others, and who you hold yourself out to be for yourself”.

      So the key is consistency. If I declare myself to be a gay and be/act consistent with that then I am authentic. If I am gay and behave gay whilst saying that I am not gay then I am not being authentic. I am pretending to be that which I am not. Now the question of whether being gay is good/bad or right/wrong lies in the realm of morality not authenticity. And the thing about morality is that it varies with culture.

      So authenticity is distinct from morality. Which means that I could declare myself to be up for invading, conquering and ruling another country. And if that is how I show up in the world then I am being authentic. Irrespective what you or anyone else thinks, what moral position you take on the matter.

      Put differently, authenticity is distinct from morality and societal benefits. It is simply being consistent with who you hold yourself out to be for yourself and for others. And I can hold myself out to be a dictator/warlord or a benevolent leader.

      Maz

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