When Steve Jobs died last fall, his status as an executive ascended to the level of myth. People from all walks of life began studying the man to determine what made him so successful and hopefully learn from it. One of the things about him praised so widely was his authenticity; whether he succeeded or failed in any given venture, he seemingly never compromised himself.
But there was a downside to that level of authenticity. Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson has said, “He could be very, very mean to people at times.” Stories are legion of Jobs berating and belittling people with whom he worked.
According to Peggy Klaus, executive coach and author of the book The Hard Truth About Soft Skills, such negative byproducts of authenticity are endemic among executives today and have “gotten completely out of hand.”
“It has become an excuse for bad behavior; for rudeness; for humiliating people,” said Klaus, who calls this the Popeye school of self-management — I am what I am. “I’m going to behave in the way that I think is authentic to me, regardless of whether that is bad behavior.”
So how should CLOs approach this? Having leaders censor themselves doesn’t help matters, according to Lauren Zander, co-founder and chairman of The Handel Group, an international corporate consulting and private coaching company.
“There’s what someone’s saying and then there’s that invisible bubble of what you can feel they’re thinking and not saying,” she said. “People, whether they’re cognizant of it or not, are constantly in tune with both and reacting to both.”
The goal of encouraging authenticity in a leader is to align what people think with what they say and do. “But then there comes the problem, because what if you’ve got a real jerk? They don’t care about other people’s experience of them,” said Zander, who wrote about this phenomenon in a Harvard Business Review blog entry titled “Authentic Leadership Can Be Bad Leadership.”
The most important thing those striving for authenticity need to do, then, is ensure it’s used productively. “Authenticity can give a license to tell the truth but do nothing to evolve the truth, and if they aren’t together, it’s just a license to be a power broker; to be mean; to be discarding; and not to care about the community,” Zander said.
Authenticity can also backfire for executives themselves in that it provides an excuse for laziness in their own development. In working with clients to help them prepare for public speaking engagements, Klaus reports they have often told her, “I don’t want to practice too much because then I come off as inauthentic.” She presses them for explanation of what this means to them. “Often what I found was that it was an excuse in those situations not to do the work, not to prepare and I just kept hearing it be used very glibly,” she said.
As an executive coach, Klaus takes clients through an in-depth self-assessment that includes a 360-degree performance review from their bosses, colleagues and direct reports. They “identify really how they see themselves and how other people see them and often there’s a disconnect,” she said.
The point is to reinforce and strengthen good behaviors and alleviate or eliminate bad ones. Zander feels this type of self-analysis is essential, and points out executives unwilling to do so while hiding behind authenticity then become inauthentic. “If a person can’t humbly talk about their own shortcomings, then they’re not being authentic,” she said. “And if they’re not doing anything about their shortcomings then they’re being sick with their power. It gives a license to a powerful enough person not to deal with their dark side or what doesn’t work about them.”
There’s a fine line between being authentic and not, and to a certain extent the bad effects of either are the nature of the job role. “Those leaders who we hear a lot about who are the titans of industry, we almost give them a pass for the arrogance; the swagger; the rudeness,” Klaus said.
Yet despite all this, Klaus still endorses authenticity as it promotes adherence to one’s values and being transparent, trustworthy, direct and honest. Zander agreed that though its potential ill effects should be examined and avoided, authenticity is a good thing. “I’m only really making a case for it,” she said. “Even when I tell you the case against it I still am making a case for it.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@CLOmedia.com.