Authenticity at any price?

umbrellaI had been coaching a senior civil servant – I’ll call him John – for several months. John was a highly respected leader running a large department who wanted to build more effective relationships so that more of his ideas came to fruition. While he had strong rapport with his direct reports and a high-performing team, relationships with his peers and boss were less effective. I found him articulate and approachable but his perceived sense of being different in background, personality and interests from the people he needed to influence ‘upwards’ was creating a block to effective interaction with them.

We had been working on this but progress was slow. Suddenly, throwing up his hands, John grunted with only partially feigned frustration. The ensuing exchange was light hearted but led to an important breakthrough.

  • John: Why don’t you just give me the arts to pretend to get along with my colleagues and then I’ll get what I want?
  • Me: (getting caught in the moment and unable to respond with an illuminating question) I can’t just give you the arts to pretend to do something you don’t believe in. Anyway, even if I could – I don’t want to.
  • John: But you have to – it’s your job, you’re my coach so WHY NOT?
  • Me: Because, firstly, and I know this is coming from my agenda… I have huge respect for who you are now and I wouldn’t want you to change that – you are exactly what your organisation needs. But …and.. more fundamentally, it’s not authentic; your colleagues would see straight through the pretence no matter how artful. It wouldn’t work…
  • John: Hummmmmph.
  • Me: Hmmm.

The exchange raised a number of questions about the concept of authenticity.

My initial response came from a set of implicit beliefs about authenticity. I viewed John as an authentic leader because people trusted him, he kept his promises, he showed a passion for his department’s purpose and, although he wasn’t polished, he worked hard at communicating with everyone. He was a tough but fair manager setting very high standards.

Many of his peers, while apparently more comfortable in the rarefied environs of top management, did not appear to have the same attributes. I believed John’s qualities were to be encouraged and would benefit the organisation and wider society.

I held that John was real – he said what he felt in the moment and didn’t appear to pretend. I believed that training him to ‘perform’ would damage his genuineness and possibly his credibility. But although I felt it was right to encourage him, was it my place as a coach to judge the organisation and explicitly or implicitly encourage John to work against the grain? As Heidegger asks, what happens when leaders refuse to actively manage their performance and speak exactly as they feel at any given moment? They might be perceived as real, but are they an appropriate or credible leader? What happens when the demands of authenticity and the needs of the organisation might be in conflict?

Mulling over this issue afterwards, particularly in light of my research into authentic leadership, I came to see that, had John been willing to go along with certain messages that he didn’t fully believe in order to improve his relational skills, then perhaps this would have helped him develop the genuine competence he needed in this area. However, if he had wanted to ‘pretend’ simply to manipulate others, this was not in keeping with leadership authenticity – and helping him manipulate was against my core values.

What actually happened was that we explored why John felt such an outsider and worked on strategies to help him understand, connect with and influence his peers so he could be seen and valued.