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Authenticity – Solid or Veneer?

The cover story of the January issue of HBR caught my attention. This article was titled “The Authenticity Paradox” by Herminia Ibarra. As an executive coach the subject of authentic leadership is of real interest to me as it is a subject that in recent times, arises with increasing regularity. Following the economic downturn, and perhaps reflecting on the inauthentic decisions that precipitated the fall from grace of many executives, an increasing number of leaders are responding to the call for authenticity and meaning. Likewise, leaders who were in some cases sidelined during the boom times because they didn’t follow the herd are now finding their authentic voice.

Copyright hbr.org
Copyright hbr.org


Reading the article by Ibarra, however, I was reminded of the old joke that scientists like to tell. It goes like this.

Late at night, a police officer sees an intoxicated man crawling around on his hands and knees under a streetlight. The drunk man tells the officer he’s looking for his wallet. When the officer asks if he’s sure this is where he dropped the wallet, the man replies that he thinks he more likely dropped it across the street. Then why are you looking over here? the officer asks. Because the light’s better here, explains the man.

The point is that we sometimes search for answers where the light is better rather than where the truth is more likely to lie. I believe this to be the case when it comes to Authenticity and Authentic Leadership.

Authenticity is about ‘Being’ rather than ‘Doing’. In other words, the search for authenticity is philosophical, rather than psychological.

However, we seem to search for authenticity through the lens of organisational behaviour. Is this because “the light is better here”. Perhaps as leaders we need to return to philosophy.

Fundamentally, my disagreement with the article is the emphasis on Doing before Being. This is at the very heart of the issue and is not surprising as modern western society is very focussed on Having and Doing and less on Being. Authenticity is fundamentally a way of being. Ibarra treats authenticity as Doing, something one does.The premise that Ibarra puts forward is that we should carefully choose our leadership actions, and act as chameleons focussing, not on our internal values, but instead constantly reacting to the external environment. However, for me, the chameleon metaphor sums up rather succinctly the very essence of inauthenticity. The chameleon is always reacting to the external world. It epitomises the outer-directed leader, whose identity is so much a reaction to others that his or her own being is emptied.

Having a clear sense of who you are is the best point to start a leadership journey.

I don’t believe that any advocate of authentic leadership would suggest that we are fixed entities and remain so. On the contrary, our authenticity ultimately manifests itself in the authentic choices we make as leaders; choices based on understanding ourselves, our values, our strengths and our weaknesses. If we fail to start from a basis of authenticity then how likely is it that the leadership choices we make will be authentic.

I am concerned then when I see an article that seems to be taking a backwards step by placing an emphasis on the rational roots of leadership enquiry; leadership as merely a set of qualities, behaviours, competencies which together go to make up “leadership”. Authentic Leadership is a break away from early management theory, the search for certainty and predictability, and constitutes a move towards leadership as a way of being. This is at the heart (pardon the pun) of authentic leadership.

Have we learned nothing from the economic crash? Is back to business as usual? Are we going to settle for, at best, a thin veneer of authenticity or will we encourage the new leaders to stop trying to Act Authentic and start Being Authentic?

Billy Byrne works as an executive coach and HR consultant and has worked with a range of levels, from graduates to senior leaders. His experience includes a mix of both business level and corporate activity, including the the design and implementation of Organisational Development interventions and major change programmes. He has played a key role in the development of HR Strategy at ESB. Billy is a part of the Executive Coaching Panel at IMI. 

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