“Authenticity”, the Foundation of Leadership

Last week I had the chance, the fortune, to spend a few days with my friend Bruce who has ALS.  I have written about him before, see the entry “Always pursue the Truth”;  and while his disease is taking it’s expected, unrelenting course, my time with him was precious.  Over the course of a day or so, we had the chance to have some amazing conversations which ranged widely over topics that Bruce wanted to talk about.  There were three conversations though that have stayed with me, that have affected me deeply, and over the course of the next few weeks I am going to write about all three.  The following is one that has to do with “Authenticity” and “Leadership”.

As I commented on in earlier entries, Bruce was my first boss out of business school and proceeded to have a very significant career at a major, publicly traded, consumer products company.  He held a number of senior executive roles across his career and had the responsibility and accountability for a multi-billion dollar business and a large organization in his last role.  I am not sure what prompted him during my last visit, but somewhat out of the blue, Bruce brought up the topic of “Leadership” and asked me what I thought about “Authenticity” as a leadership characteristic.  Rather than diving into a rambling “sermonette” of my opinions on the subject, I had the good sense to ask Bruce what he thought about this idea of “Authenticity” in a leadership context.  Even with his voice restricted by a respirator, he started to talk about “Authenticity” as a critical variable in leaders.  That organizations knew immediately whether their leader was being “Authentic” or not .  In those moments of “Authenticity” , Bruce felt that organizations trusted their leaders dramatically more than when there were impressions of Leadership “Inauthenticity“.

I asked Bruce how he evaluated/measured “Authenticity”.  His comments rang true to my experience, but I was having a hard time trying to figure out how you might evaluate/assess this characteristic.  He said very simply, “alignment between words and actions”.  He talked about an executive that he worked closely with who “talked a good game” about caring for and being focused on his team; but his actions showed that he really cared for and was focused on himself.  A clear example of misalignment between words and actions… a clear example of a lack of “Leadership Authenticity.”As a result,  the organization doesn’t and probably won’t trust this leader very well.  Obviously a limiter to performance. In many  ways it would have been better for everyone, including the broader organization, if the executive in the example wasn’t trying to portray an image that was so different from who he really is.

Since returning home, I found an old article from 1997 written by Kevin Cashman, titled “Authentic Leadership”.  The following is a quote from the article that articulates Bruce’s point well:

The foundation of leadership is authenticity. How do we go about expressing ourselves more authentically?I constantly challenge clients to ask, “Where is my leadership coming from?” Do our actions originate from deep within ourselves, or are they coming from a more superficial, limited place? Is our leadership arising from our character, the essence of who we are? Or is it only coming from our persona, the external personality we’ve created to cope with life circumstances.

As I mentioned above , I am not sure what prompted Bruce to want to talk about this topic; but I have always found Bruce to be an amazingly “Authentic” person, friend, and boss.  This conversation gave me more to think about regarding the alignment of my words and actions, my “Leadership Authenticity”. I hope that it might be a trigger for you too!