Move Aside Authenticity—Leadership Needs Purposefulness

6 min read

A room full of business leaders wants to learn how to help employees improve—to guide their success.

As is the case in almost all my leadership development programs, the discussion turns to self-management, and the tactic I reveal is to keep oneself in check. To prevent defensiveness by holding back and keeping an eye on palatability. To project civility and receptivity. Never provocation.

I might even have said (half-jokingly), “The last thing you want to do is to be completely honest!”

Out of the corner of the room, I heard a voice:

“That is not authentic! It sounds like people-pleasing!”

I stopped in my tracks. Frozen. Unable to speak for a moment (which rarely happens).

“Yes! It is people-pleasing. It is authentically working to be a leader who makes others feel good so that the others are more likely to accept input as opposed to being annoyed with the leader.”

Then I asked:

“And is something wrong with that?”

The workshop participant went on to explain that, based on what he had read from various self-proclaimed “thought leaders” online, people-pleasing contradicts authentic leadership.

This story illustrates the inherent paradox of these two leadership concepts. Can a leader aim to please and be authentic?

I am certain the opposite of people-pleasing is a bad idea (people angering?). And I’m quite sure that the opposite of authentic is unappealing as well (fake?). But what is the nuance missing here?

Unpacking Authenticity

The past few years have seen an explosion of writing on the topic of authentic leadership and, along with it, much praise and some concern.

The praise for being “real” has its origins in philosophers like Sartre and Socrates, and continued into the age of early humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers.

According to Rogers and others, we are inherently motivated to move toward our true selves and cultivate authenticity. These early explanations of authenticity involved being true to oneself in most situations.

While there is evidence that this conceptualization of authenticity is fundamental to our well-being, there is also evidence that any simple explanations of authenticity won’t serve us in our pursuit of this much-sought-after quality. Neither will blind acceptance of this as an unshakably efficacious leadership approach. What we see as authenticity is likely feelings as opposed to a measurable quality.

Landing on a concrete definition of authenticity in the context of leadership is indeed challenging. But, because it pertains to a quality of the self, it is likely imperceptible and unmeasurable. After all, how could a measure, let alone another person, see a true self and compare it to a representation of that self to the point where they could be compared to each other?

The commonly understood meaning of “knowing and being true to oneself” can be a huge obstacle. It requires a broad, exhaustive, and improbable understanding of oneself. Who can say they are so self-aware as to determine that they are finished with this arguably lifelong goal? Done. Ticked that box.

When we choose to embrace a growth mindset, we see that we are continually growing and changing. Sticking to who we think we are in the spirit of authenticity may prevent the requirements of leadership development.

Of course, on the surface, authenticity comes across as a moral, admirable, and goal-worthy leadership approach. It sure sounds much better than the opposites that come to mind, like fake, phony, or deceptive. And even subjective feelings of authenticity are important to study despite the inherent complexities.

Leadership Essential Reads

Any leader would be wise to embrace any leadership approach that encourages us to be more “down to earth” or “real.” Like many, I also see the authentic thing as massively alluring. In recent years, this allure has sparked an increased interest in authentic leadership and, with it, the throngs of pop theorists, gurus, and inspirational talks enthusiastically touting its importance.

However, the well-intentioned, trendy, and seductive image of “The Disneyland-inspired good leader…moral peak performer…” is unrealistic at best and potentially misleading at worst.

Helpful or Not?

Perhaps, despite the worthy pursuit of authenticity generally, in the context of leadership, it is better viewed as something that guides and helps in the face of uncertainty, as opposed to a leadership choice. This may very well end up as a “…rigid definition of authenticity (that) can get in the way of effective leadership.”1

Imagine that you are not at your best. Maybe you are having a bad day. Maybe that enthusiastic intern is getting on your nerves, and you are on the verge of bluntly reacting. Or perhaps your tendency toward humility causes you to undersell an idea to the executive team and they don’t buy in.

In these situations, being authentic—in a literal sense—may not serve you. Scholars have noted that this may constitute “…a simplistic understanding of what it means…” and that it “…can hinder your growth and limit your impact.1 How? By becoming a convenient excuse for staying in that ubiquitous comfort zone.

The drive to exhibit authenticity might lead a leader to adopt an “I am what I am, and if you don’t like it…” approach to dealing with others. In other words, the social realities and norms of a workplace may make seemingly authentic leadership behaviours impossible, unrealistic, and ineffective. This might be because it gets lumped in with honesty. Honesty might be interpreted as spilling uncensored thoughts and feelings, while leadership requires tact, timing, kindness, and empathy.

As some scholars have noted, a propensity to “…lead authentically may be a subtle invitation not only to moral behaviour, but also to narcissism and other pathologies.”


Choosing Purposefulness

Source: Dall-E/OpenAI


Leaders and managers could be much better off leaning into adding value to interactions and attending to the long-accepted consideration structure of classical leadership theory. Authenticity, for its own sake, can seriously stifle the very real leadership requirement of self-monitoring and sensitivity to others.

Better yet, as I often suggest to clients and students, when we consider that leadership success depends on followers, it makes sense to embrace the complexity of authentic leadership: “authenticity and self-monitoring can be viewed as comprising both aspects of the self, with one concerned for the unique qualities of the self while the other is concerned for the self in relation to others.

The paradox of authenticity and self-monitoring can be resolved by embracing complexity and adopting a third notion, purposefulness. Instead of clinging to the dichotomy, it is far better to adopt a more fluid, complex, and ultimately flexible notion of ourselves as leaders.

We are consistently broadening our roles throughout our lives, adding nuance and dimension to our identities. So, there are several selves a leader can “stay true to.” Success lies in choosing, on purpose, how to tap into the most useful one for the context. And this task is far more about self-control and choice than about an overly simplified notion of authenticity.


Leaders Need Multiple Selves

Source: Dall-E/OpenAI

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours