Few myths as are pervasive as the notion that leaders ought to be “authentic”. Indeed, the self-help and popular coaching literature are inundated with suggestions such as “just be yourself”, “don’t worry about what people think of you”, and “if you think you are great, you are”. Although such feel-good advice is obviously comforting (wouldn’t it be nice if others just celebrated the most spontaneous, unfiltered, and impulsive version of ourselves, and we had no pressure whatsoever to “behave”, even in critical work situations?) it is in stark contrast with the rather more sobering and tedious reality, namely that “faking it” is a critical ingredient of leadership talent. In fact, if you are unable (or unwilling) to adjust your behavior to meet social expectations, adhere to the dominant etiquette, take into account other people’s perspectives, and make an effort to manage impressions to present yourself in a desirable rather than unrepressed, uninhibited, or uncensored way, then you won’t just fail to be an effective leader, but also fail to be a leader in the first place.
A quick glance at the current state of affairs in leadership should make it pretty clear to anyone that authenticity comes at a high price, paid not only by leaders but also, and especially, their followers. Most of the social, political, and economic problems leaders cause are a direct result of their unwillingness or inability to inhibit their authentic self, usually because they feel too powerful, immune, or entitled to care about the consequences of acting with too little consideration for what others need, and too much consideration for their own selfish interests.
We all know that “power corrupts”, but we rarely spend time trying to understand the specific psychological mechanisms underpinning this process, and they mostly have to do with a decrease in leaders’ motivation to keep harnessing a positive reputation, to remain as focused on “faking good” as they were when they were less powerful, and motivated to get to the top. Among politicians or heads of state, this explains why even dictators can start as relatively benevolent leaders before deteriorating to toxic agents, and why charismatic leaders derail once they stop keeping their narcissistic tendencies in check, and no longer give a damn about what others think of them, unless they idolize them. The main leadership problems in the world don’t happen because leaders fake it, but because they decide to stop faking it, and suddenly feel the right to just be themselves.
To be sure, some people may like you for who you really are deep down, which of course requires a great deal of knowledge of who you are, and getting to spend a great deal of time with you – whether they are your family, best friends, spouse, or psychotherapist. The scientific literature suggests very clearly that in most instances they will even get to know you better than you know yourself, which is not hard since generally speaking humans are quite self-deceived and deluded. We don’t do self-awareness very well, and are much more interested in reality distortion and self-enhancement than accurate self-insights. This is not a trivial issue because when we ask people to “be authentic”, we need to understand that their authentic self, in the sense of a genuine self-view, may neither be accurate nor honest to begin with. For instance, when you ask people whether they are funny, creative, original, good, or nice, around 80-90% of people will say YES even though that is statistically impossible. And they are not lying to you, but to themselves. By the same token, our desire to justify our positive self-views to ourselves leads to frequent self-serving interpretations of reality, an inability to accept blame and responsibility for our mistakes, and our proclivity to bring others down or see “others” as boring, uncreative, wrong, evil, or stupid, etc. If that’s our authentic self, then the world is better off if we can hide it, not just from others but also from ourselves.
Nobody wants to follow a leader who comes across as a fake, but this has little to do with whether leaders are being themselves, or even honest with themselves, in their decisions and behaviors. Leaders benefit a great deal from being perceived as authentic by others, but that requires a great deal of practice, attention, and focus: it requires being consistent in one’s actions and words, and maintaining your professional persona across settings – keeping your personal self private. Importantly, it requires leaders to get to terms with the fundamental fact that the authentic and unfiltered version of themselves is someone who perhaps 4 or 5 people have learned to love, or at least tolerate. Everyone else, and particularly those who work for them or depend on them, expects them to display the best version of themselves and act in a smart, controlled, and effective (rather than authentic) way.
When it comes to leadership we have a big opportunity to improve and make the state-of-affairs better, not for leaders but everyone else. The opportunity is to distinguish between style and substance, and between what’s good for the leader and what’s good for everyone else. On the former the issue is pretty intuitive: authenticity, just like confidence and charisma, is about style rather than substance. We shouldn’t care so much about whether leaders really mean what they say and do “deep down”, so long as what they do is good for us. This applies to the issue of whether leaders are true or truthful to their own values, too: this can be good or bad, depending on what those values are. For instance, if Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were true to their values, we would have been better off if they hadn’t. To a lesser degree, this applies to any leader, including corporate leaders: if their values or judgment are wrong, then all we can hope for is that they are not themselves, and that they learn to follow other people’s guidance and decisions instead.
On the latter we have a clear choice: to either continue seeing leadership as a personal privilege, a sign of status and power, and admire those who get to the top irrespective of what they do for others, in which case authenticity may be regarded as an “extra skills” or dimension of talent – as in, wow, they got there by just being themselves! Or start focusing on what it means to have certain people in charge of others, controlling resources, and being responsible for other people’s welfare and wellbeing. It seems clear to me that between a leader who is authentic but incompetent, and one who has worked hard to against her nature to act in a competent way and have a beneficial impact on others, the choice should not be too hard.