Boorish behavior justified as “being authentic” is never justified, nor authentic.  Unfiltered and unmitigated words justified as “being authentic” are never justified, nor authentic.  Reckless actions and deeds justified as “being authentic” are never justified, nor authentic.  The flagrant disregard for basic rules of decorum and standards of decency justified as “being authentic” is never justified, nor authentic.

Words matter.  Behaviors matter.  Actions matter.  Trying to justify inappropriate words, inexcusable behavior, and damnable actions as being “authentic” is a perversion of authentic leadership.  Think of the number of times people have uttered “I have to be genuine”, “I am keeping it real”, “that is who I am”, or “to be brutally honest” immediately preceding cringeworthy words, behaviors, or actions. It has become too frequent, too common, too accepted.  This perversion of authentic leadership and its misappropriation to excuse the inexcusable must stop.  We must pierce the false veil of “authenticity” that bullies use, and hide behind, and hold them accountable for what they are: bullies.

Now, more than ever, we must uphold our standards of behavior and rules of decorum, not flaunt them while waving the flag of “authenticity”. It is trust that people desire and crave.  This is understandable given the gradual erosion of public trust of our major social institutions, such as government, business, media, education, and organized religion.  True authenticity and authentic leadership hold promise for delivering trust back to the people, not this hijacked version of “authenticity”.

The academic understanding of authentic leadership is still emerging. There are many different theories of, and approaches to, authentic leadership.  And as with most constructs of leadership, there are critiques and criticisms.  Nevertheless, various research efforts focused on the effects of authentic leadership have been encouraging, pointing to correlations between authentic leadership and hope, optimism, and trust.

Bill George, a pracademic (practitioner and academic) who was the former CEO of Medtronic and who is a professor at Harvard Business School, provides a useful and pragmatic roadmap for understanding authentic leadership. Of the various approaches to authentic leadership, his book Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value provides a practical “how to” approach and serves as a useful jumping-off point for a refined understanding authentic leadership.

According to his approach, authentic leaders pursue their purpose, live a values centered life, develop right relationships, behave consistently, and show compassion.  Not revolutionary, surprising, or complicated.  But hard.  The “easy” things, or the “obvious” stuff become so critical because they are the things that are hardest to accomplish in practice.

It is easy to sow divisiveness and hatred; history is littered with examples.  It is hard to develop genuine connections with people very different from ourselves; revered leaders do this and they nurture right relationships.  It is easy to espouse core values—simply look at Enron and its leadership team during their demise.   They espoused integrity, but engaged in one of the most egregious accounting scandals in history.  It is a very different thing to embody and live out one’s core values; this is hard and is the reason why acts of integrity are so noteworthy and memorable. It is easy to feel sorry for others and their plight; many of us do this daily.  It is very different and hard to transform those feelings into actions designed to make a positive difference; that is compassion, and that is a differentiator.

If we all commit to doing the “easy” stuff well, and consistently, and for a purpose, I suppose we would regain our trust in one another. We can repackage these concepts many different ways, but it is not going to change the fact that we all need to do the heavy lifting required to develop trust.  Authentic leadership is one approach to becoming more trustworthy, and George provides a useful guide to get us there.  Let’s reclaim what it means to be authentic, and recommit to doing the hard work required to become authentic leaders so that we can regain the trust required to make a positive difference in our lives, our organizations, and our communities.

(Originally published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 11-3-18)