3 Risks of Authentic Leadership

by Jesse Lahey on October 30, 2012

Reflection of a barn on water

Authenticity has become a buzzword lately. We can assume it’s in great demand from today’s leaders. Right?

Not necessarily. We reward political leaders who are fast with soundbytes and aggressive accusations. We buy music and movies from photoshopped entertainers who are best at being bigger-than-life. And we give money to religious icons who seem to have achieved the perfection and happiness that we desperately want, too.

But are we changed by leaders like that? Maybe some people are, but not the people with the most potential to change the world. The world-changers are themselves changed most by leaders who are credible, trustworthy, authentic.

Take my friend Matt. I like to emphasize that he’s my friend, because it’s scary to think what might happen if I ever got on his bad side. A former Army Ranger, Matt is a strapping hulk of a guy who has been an FBI agent for more than a decade. I sleep better at night knowing that Matt is making the country safer. That’s not just because Matt is tough and smart; I also know Matt is a good-hearted person. One reason I know this is because one of the first times we talked, he shared with me about the uncomfortable and even painful experience of undergoing the periodic lie-detector tests required for his FBI position. Beneath his muscles and his own interrogating skills, Matt sweats just like any of us would if put under a harsh light of interrogation about every little detail of life that could be called into question.

As researcher Brene Brown has pointed out, all of us are afraid that something about us, if brought to light, might make us unworthy. Unworthy for an FBI job, unworthy to be followed as leader, unworthy to be accepted as a friend or spouse.

So we are tempted to wear a mask, to pretend to be what we think everyone else thinks we should be. We hide the quirky, remarkable things about ourselves, like our hopes, fears, dreams, mistakes, passions, weaknesses, and even some of our strengths. Since grade school, we have learned to fit in rather than stand out — except in limited, socially acceptable areas like athletic performance.

There are undeniable risks in opening up and being who you really are:

  • You can be certain that you will turn off or even offend some people. When you declare that some of Neil Diamond (the grittier songs, not the cheesy ones) is just as genius as Bob Dylan, some people will tune you out forever. But others will go check out Neil online (secretly, using headphones) to see if they’ve been missing something.
  • You can make the mistake of sharing more detail than is appropriate for the situation. As Dave Stachowiak and I discussed in the Engaging Leader podcast episode 009, it is possible to reveal too much.  I once observed a church pastor who shared with his congregation the whole drawn-out story of a serious long-term problem with his teenage daughter. Afterward, I heard someone with small kids say she didn’t see how he could teach her anything useful about parenting. People need to know that you are human and have struggles too; but getting overly graphic can create the mis-perception that this one illustration outweighs all the competencies that make you a leader worth following.
  • You can try so hard to be authentic that you focus too much on yourself. There is a podcaster from whom I’ve learned a lot, but he’s not one I listen to regularly. His desire to be authentic causes him to spend too much time sharing about himself that I get bored. As a listener, I mostly care about what he can teach that I can put into action. We need to share what is genuinely helpful, and then move on.

Having bumbled my way into experiencing firsthand all of the above risks, I’ve learned some guidelines to being authentic without going too far.

  • Honesty: Above all, try to stay honest. It’s possible to wear a mask in order to fit in, but it’s also possible to exaggerate in order to stand out. Try to be true to who you really are, and to create impressions in other people that reflect your true credibility as a leader.
  • Humility: Authenticity begins with genuine humility. The thinking behind anything you share should start from a realization that you are no more or less valuable as a person than anyone else.
  • Helpfulness: In sharing a story or aspect about yourself, try to share enough detail to be helpful for the given audience. Try to meet their current needs, but also maintain accurate credibility so you can help meet their future needs. Stop when you’ve given them enough information, so you don’t risk boring them with unnecessary personal details.
  • Credibility: In my earlier story about the pastor, there were some in the audience who were going through deep, dark times with their teenage kids and really needed to hear his story; but there were others at a different place in life who didn’t understand how a father could have those problems and still be qualified to teach as a pastor. To help people have an accurate perception of your credibility, the details or stories you share should be appropriate for their level of need, and not lower.

Authenticity takes guts, heart, and an understanding of what will truly help others. What better way to leave a unique mark on the world?

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