The real deal about authentic leadership

IMD Business School
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The real deal

In the last decade, there has been an explosion in the popularity of a style of leadership known as authentic leadership. In fact, while in general I rarely have clients ask me promote a specific leadership theory in my teaching, it is not unusual to have a client specifically request for a program to nurture authentic leadership.

Coined by Medtronic CEO, Bill George, authentic leadership touts great leaders as self-aware, ethically-principled individuals who are able to openly share their thoughts and beliefs.

There are unquestionably several appealing aspects of this leadership theory, not least its emphasis on self-awareness and ethics. Therefore, it is no surprise that organizations want to nurture these attributes in their own leadership ranks. But in my experience, both personally and working with clients, I find that being truly authentic has its limitations – particularly, the part of authentic leadership that advocates for leaders to be transparent and open with their feelings.

I’ve found that there are situations when a leader’s complete transparency and candor with their thoughts, emotions, and intentions can be detrimental to themselves and those they lead.

The first situation is when a leader is in hostile territory. There are times when those who are interacting with a leader do not have benevolent intentions. That is, they wish to gain information from the leader in order to exploit him or her or use this information against the leader. In such situations, being completely transparent can harm the leader and the organization they lead.

The second situation is when the leader is experiencing negative emotions. Emotions are contagious. When a leader is feeling stressed, angry, or dejected, these emotions can be “caught” by those they interact with and cascade throughout the organization.

This cascading of a leader’s emotions through the hierarchy is particularly likely to happen when people are uncertain how to feel about something; the first place that they are likely to look for emotional cues is upwards. That is, the leader acts as a sort of “emotional role model” influencing the way others feel. In such situations, being truly “authentic” with one’s feelings can be harmful to the organization.
The third is when the organization is going through a time of a change or uncertainty and making announcements or sharing information prematurely will only add to rather than reduce the level of stress and anxiety in the organization. In such situations, a leader might have to sit on information until a later time and until more is known.

I used to work for a government-funded organization, which received a 20% reduction in its budget due to cuts at the state level. Everyone was in a state of frenzy, wondering how these cuts would affect them personally – would their job be eliminated, would they be laid off, would there be salary cuts? While I am certain that the leaders of the organization had ideas of how they were going to move forward, making an announcement or leaking any information about the impending changes before more was certain would have only increased the level of panic in the organization.

Instead, the leadership expressed empathy with the uncertainty and stress that was being felt, assured people that they were working hard to find the best resolution, but then wisely waited until they had more information and could make announcements with confidence and certainty – even if the news wasn’t particularly welcomed. This prudence helped to reduce the stress throughout the organization.

So, what do leaders do in order to navigate the situations where they cannot be as authentic as they might like? I advocate for a more nuanced approach to the theory, which I call, “Bounded Authenticity”. This theory takes the foundation of ethics and self-awareness from the original theory, but integrates the nuance that leaders cannot always be authentic and transparent in their thoughts, intentions, and emotions.

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In fact, sometimes these thoughts, intentions, and emotions need to be kept “tight to a leader’s breast” and not openly shared – both for their own good and the good of those they lead.

All the psychological literature would also suggest that forcing a leader to hold in or contain certain emotions can actually lead to emotionally exhaustion or “ego depletion”, which is a condition that occurs when one tries to resist a temptation or a desire. Such exhaustion not only has physiological effects such as increased stress, but also has behavioral effects, like the inability to resist temptations in other domains.

Thus, all leaders need to have a small group of people who they consider part of their inner circle or “trust cabinet”. The idea of a trust cabinet is not new – it has been advocated for by management scholars such as Pamela Meyer and Saj-nicole Joni and practiced by great leaders such a Benjamin Franklin and John F. Kennedy.

A trust cabinet is a group of 5-8 people who the leader implicitly trusts, knows will keep confidence, who the leader respects and admires for something they have accomplished in their own right, and are not subject to any crucial conflicts of interest. A leader should use this trust cabinet as an outlet to be completely authentic – being transparent with his or her emotions and feeling a sense of comfort that he or she can be completely candid in this context.

The theory of Bounded Authenticity also requires that a leader be able to read his or her audience – that is, to know who is trustworthy and who should be kept at arm’s length. This ability requires some knowledge and expertise in reading non-verbal behavior, and even the ability to detect truthfulness versus deception in those around him or her.

In my leadership classes, I incorporate some content on reading emotions, deciphering non-verbal behavior, and truthfulness-detection skills, for I find that these are crucial skills for leaders to possess in order to not fall victim to people who wish to exploit them.

And lastly, a leader needs to ask him or herself if this is right time to be completely transparent and why he or she wishes to disclose the information. Is it just to “get things off their chest”? or is there are more meaningful reason? If it’s the former, it is likely best to go to a member of his or her trust cabinet rather than to disclose widely within the organization. The leader must also ask him or herself if all the information is known or if disclosing some of the information now might be premature.

While there are many admirable components to being an authentic leader, I find that adopting a more “bounded authenticity” approach can result in better outcomes for both the leader and those they lead.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from IMD Business School, Switzerland.]

This article has been authored by Jennifer Jordan. Jennifer Jordan is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD Business School.

The views expressed in this article are of the author and not the views of the publisher.

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