Authentic leadership in a post-truth age

August 28, 2019

By Dr. Elad Kalay

"I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

Each one of us cherishes at least one leader that influenced us in a unique way in a particular time in our life. When we think of leadership, we tend to think of presidents, prime ministers, politicians or famous historical characters, such as the biblical prophets. However, the leaders that leave the greatest mark in us are commonly a manager, a commander in the army, a teacher, a parent, or a similar character which whom we had an ongoing interaction on a daily basis throughout different periods of our lives. Leadership does not belong solely to outstanding individuals. In fact, each and every one of us takes the role of a leader in different occasions; it can be at work, among friends, in the community, in the family or in any other social activity. Nevertheless, before everything else, we lead ourselves throughout our life journey. A person who wishes to lead others successfully must learn first to lead him or herself.

One of the contemporary approaches to leadership, which had been given significant scholarly attention in the last two decades, is authentic leadership[1]. Authentic leadership is comprised of four components[2]: (a) Self-awareness – The ability to perceive oneself according to insights drawn from within, as well as those drawn from the outer world, demonstrating an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses; also demonstrating the capacity to stay receptive to learn about oneself, and to be conscious of one’s impact on others; (b) Relational Transparency – Presenting one's authentic self to others (as opposed to a fake or a distorted self), and facilitating trust, by exposing real thoughts and feelings while maintaining emotional regulation; (c) Balanced processing – One's decision making ability, based on collecting the entire relevant objective information, including views that challenge one’s fundamental assumptions; and (d) Internalized moral perspective – Internalized and integrated self-regulation, based on internal moral standards and values, which enables acting and making decisions in alignment with these standards, as opposed to being influenced by political pressures or selfish motives. Authentic leaders are individuals who are true to themselves and to what they believe in, and who establish honest relationships with others based on trust. Because people trust them, they can drive others to reach high performance.

In his book True North[3], Bill George brings the story of Oprah Winfrey to demonstrate the shift that a leader can make in his/her journey towards becoming more authentic. Winfrey experienced an extremely difficult childhood. At a very young age, she was sexually abused by relatives, so many times that she thought, "Well, this is just the way life is". At 14 she had an unwanted child that died in childbirth. According to her, she had a breakthrough moment that shifted her entire perception about herself and her life purpose. It happened during an interview with a woman that was sexually abused. Winfrey got overwhelmed during the interview and asked to stop the cameras. This was the first time when she realized that she was not responsible for what had happened. Till that moment, she was trying to be something different than who she was. And then, at 36, she said, "I can be who I am", and her message from that time forward on her show was, "You are solely responsible for your life, and you don't have to live your life to please others".  This incident helped her with shifting her focus from her own career and success towards different programs and projects aiming to empower women all over the world to take responsibility for their lives.

Oprah Winfrey in Miami on her "The Life You Want" tour, October 2014

Do leaders who are direct, impulsive, and say out loud whatever comes to their mind without a filter, are authentic leaders?

Parallel to the growing interest in authentic leadership, we face today a contradictory drift towards populistic leaders who are motivated by the gain of power and control and are commonly characterized as narcissistic leaders. Narcissist is someone who is in love with him/herself; His/her behavior is characterized with a grandiose sense of self-importance, over-engaging in fantasies of success and power, belief in a special status, a demand for admiration, unreasonable sense, and expectations for being "entitled", interpersonal exploitation, lack of empathy, jealousy and arrogance. Narcissistic leaders have difficulties in interpersonal relationships and tend to have a poor reality judgment. They tend to take credit for successes while blaming others for failures. They demand blind obedience, ask to be complimented, and cannot accept being criticized. When they feel threatened, they respond with exasperated anger and personal attacks. Narcissistic leaders constantly seek recognition and superiority, and have difficulty understanding and accepting different perspectives. In addition, they tend to attribute unimportance to moral prohibitions and "bypass" them as they hinder them from achieving their goals. Such leaders do not object to the usage of 'alternative facts' and do not hesitate to lie or carry out unethical deeds to accomplish their objectives.

Narcissistic leaders constantly seek recognition and superiority

Many confuse leaders who tend to be direct, impulsive, and submit what comes to mind, as authentic leaders. The yearning for straightforward leaders is a direct consequence of the public being fed up with the 'politically correct' culture. Nevertheless, populism is the different side of the same coin. Both, leaders who deny the truth and try to paint it with charming colors, and leaders who flagrantly say what is on their mind caring less about the truth and other persons' feelings, are inauthentic leaders. Authentic leaders care for their followers; they maintain relationships based on trust and transparency; they follow their values and principles, and seek to make ethical decisions. Such leaders welcome different perspectives and feedback, so they can learn from mistakes, develop awareness, and base their choices on as comprehensive and accurate information as possible, rather than on impulsive tendencies. Authentic leaders 'walk their talk' and aim to be a role model for their followers.

What is the benefit of being an authentic leader in a world where truth is becoming less and less imperative and valuable?

There is a significant difference between leaders in the political and organizational fields. People can be very tolerable towards politicians who demonstrate unethical, dishonest, and even corrupted behavior, as long as these politicians represent their agenda. In research conducted prior to the 2012 elections in America[4], Dan Ariely showed that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum were willing to tolerate dishonest conduct, provided those deeds advanced their own ideals. On the contrary, most people will have a hard time to accept dishonest or unethical behavior by their boss. Also, there is a big difference between reading in the newspaper about lies and corruptions and encountering them directly on a daily basis in the workplace. Hence, this paper is focused on leaders in the organizational field.

When discussing authentic leadership in the context of management, the first question that is often raised is: "What is it good for?". The dictionary meaning of the term 'authentic' is 'genuine', 'original', 'not a fake'. The Greek philosophers' idea of authenticity is related to self-mastery. Their famous statement: Know thyself that was written on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi is reflecting this concept. One of the earliest references to this notion was made by Socrates, who claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. Furthermore, Aristotle proposed that happiness depends on the cultivation of virtue. Hence, being an authentic leader is a choice to follow the path of truth and live a meaningful life, as opposed to living a fake life. According to this perspective, inauthentic life might include external achievements, but at the same time, carrying a deep empty hole of vanity, internally. Authentic leaders sincerely strive to make the world around them a better place to live at and are less concerned with selfish motives.

Being an authentic leader is a choice to follow the path of truth and live a meaningful life, as opposed to living a fake life

A remarkable longitudinal study done by the University of Harvard, known as the Grant Study[5], gathered information about the mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience and marital quality of 268 participants throughout their life for 75 years. The study's main conclusion is that warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. Happiness is not gained by money, success, position, or power, but by having sincere and truthful relationships. In their book, The High Impact Leader[6], Avolio, and Luthans describe the response of Warn Buffet to a student’s question about how he defines success, in a lecture he gave to college students. He said that man's success in life is based on how many people would love you enough to hide you if their life and yours depended on it. This unusual yet profound answer was inspired by a successful elderly businesswoman Buffet has known, who had survived the Holocaust. He joked that most of the rich people he knew would not even include their kids on the list of people who would hide them.

  Warn Buffet, Source: the White House website.

Which leader will you follow during a crisis or hard times?

Populistic leaders use their charisma and fear-based arguments to drift many people to their favor. Nevertheless, when they fail to satisfy their empty promises, or when their fake image gets unveiled, they lose their followers' trust and commitment. Once trust has been broken, it is extremely difficult to rebuild it. Therefore, in the long run, populistic leaders might have serious trouble maintaining their supporters' loyalty and faithfulness. Contrarywise, authentic leaders create and sustain long term relationships with their followers, based on trust and mutual respect. As their followers tend to identify with them and with their goals, they will often follow them even in hard times and will be willing to make extra efforts during crises, when it is most needed. Recent studies in organizational psychology show that the more managers demonstrate authentic leadership, the more their followers tend to trust them, be committed to the organization, fill more satisfied with their work and execute high job performance[7].

Today, more than ever, when anyone can google another, or send out a message to thousands of people throughout social networks with just a touch on the screen reporting an unethical incident, leaders cannot afford not to be transparent and trustworthy. Warren Buffett that was mentioned above set an ethical standard test for every action one takes. According to Buffet, you should ask yourself if you would have done this action knowing that it is going be the headline in the New York Times the next morning. Many workers show a non-tolerance for leaders' obsession with self-interest and narcissistic behavior. The feelings of being used, cheated, and manipulated have brought forth a great yearning to reclaim more ethical management. Authentic leaders make organizations better places, not only in terms of productivity but also in terms of the quality of the entire organizational climate.

How to remain an authentic leader amidst a 'wasp nest.'

Leaders that follow their inner core and act in alignment with their values and standards are usually self-confident.

It is essential to state that demonstrating authentic leadership is not an easy task. Especially, authentic leaders may encounter significant challenges in maintaining their ethical, transparent, and truthful attitude within circumstances characterized by high organizational politics. Many organizations are filled with power struggles, coalitions, lobbies, and behaviors based on quid pro quo. The higher you climb the organizational hierarchy, the higher are the chances you will encounter workers with a big ego and far-reaching ambitions, that won't flicker before 'stepping' on whoever stands in their way. In such organizational climate, transparency could be seen as weakness and might be used against you. However, being an authentic leader doesn't mean that you have to uncover all your cards at all times. Organizational politics is a game that must be played wisely, like any other game that involves complexity and many possible consequences. Successful leaders navigate their path using high emotional intelligence skills. Such skills can be developed and nourished. According to Daniel Goleman[8], emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. All these qualities can be improved and sharpen by training, such as leadership development programs.

Furthermore, authentic leaders set clear boundaries based on their values, principles, and professional standards. Within their boundaries, they should try not to 'step on other workers' toes', and be willing to compromise on less essential principles. If your truth could hurt co-worker's feelings, you should consider if it must be stated, and if yes, how to phrase it. Many times, it is not the content that makes people get upset, but the way it is communicated. Leaders should develop the awareness of the impact that their words and deeds have on their environment. When they encounter a conflict of interests, they should consider what is the higher value or principle that is the most imperative, and stick to it. Leaders that follow their inner core and act in alignment with their values and standards are usually self-confident. Hence, they do not need to justify their choices, and at the same time, do not hesitate to admit mistakes.

Do not waste your time and energy on fighting windmills

It gets even harder when the organizational goals and values contradict ones' inner positions and ideology. Being an authentic leader does not mean that as soon as you encounter such conflict, you turn your back and step away from the organization. Success and long term achievements can be reached only through commitment, dedication, and persistence. In most cases, conflicts at work are not around a requirement to commit unethical deeds or break the law. If this is the case, you must consider quitting. However, in situations where you disagree with another person in the organization, you should try to consider the broader picture, while putting aside your personal emotional reactions. Ask yourself, what is the highest benefit of the whole? What is the highest value and principle that needs to be followed? Step aside for a moment, and see if you are insisting on objective and meaningful principles, or it is not really that important. And if it is essential, could it be heard? Are your co-workers able to hear and digest your position, or are you fighting windmills? Another question to consider is what are you risking in sticking to your position? Is it worth it? Authentic leaders do not avoid conflicts and do not make their choices based on fear. However, they develop high self-regulation, allowing themselves to be less emotionally reactive, and use their discernment for deciding for which principles it is worth fighting, and when it is the best to bend their head and simply let go.

Marketing is not a dirty word

Today, more than ever, when there is no such thing as a permanent job anymore, and the traditional career paths almost entirely extinct, authentic leaders need to market themselves in order to succeed. Seldom, success comes to you without reaching out to get it. Marketing is not a dirty word. You can market yourself without having to step on others on your way, and without creating a fake image. In the same time, it doesn't mean that you have to state the entire truth the whole time. For example, in a job interview, you choose what to state and what to ignore. It is unethical to declare false details, and if it gets revealed, you will probably lose your chances to get hired. However, it is legitimate to emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, as well as to volunteer only pieces of information that are in your favor.

Nonetheless, there is a thin line between stating only some of the truth in specific circumstances and twisting the truth suggesting 'alternative facts'. The danger is when people start to believe in the alternative reality they invented to justify their positions and deeds. It is a very slippery slope! Recent brain research using functional MRI[9] shows that the sensitivity of the amygdala, the part of the brain which performs a primary role in the processing of memorydecision-making, and emotional reactions, is gradually adapting to dishonest behavior. In other words, these findings demonstrate a biological mechanism of unethical deterioration. What begins as a small act of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions without noticing.

There are several techniques that can help us remain authentic and truthful, yet effective, in the midst of organizational politics. First, it is essential to ask feedback from our surrounding. While populistic leaders surround themselves with yes-men and criticize anyone who dares to contradict their position, authentic leaders seek honest feedback even when it challenges their core beliefs. Feedback can help us develop self-awareness, see the broader picture, and grow a sensitivity for the impact we have on others. In the same time, sincere feedback can help us straighten ourselves when we are off track, trapped by our ego and by our subjective perception of reality, and prevent us from sliding down the slippery slope. One of the best ways to get such feedback is by a mentor. The mentor could be a senior employee at the organization, a more experienced trusted fellow from outside the organization, or an organizational consultant. It is always good to have someone you trust to discuss with him/her dilemmas and get another perspective. As managers climb up the organizational pyramid, they remain lonelier, and heavier becomes the load on their shoulders. Therefore, it is even more crucial for high executives to find a trusted mentor.

In the same time, dealing with organizational politics requires a constant self-introspection. You should consider each situation uniquely. Be alert where you compromise on speaking the truth, and ask yourself if it is necessary. In each and every situation, examine your motivation and find out if it is for the sake of selfish purposes, such as gaining power and control, or if it is serving a higher purpose. Be careful not to fall into the habit of 'cutting corners'. Often, when functioning on 'automatic pilot', we lose our sensibility and awareness and begin to develop numbness for ethical behavior.  An authentic leader is someone who knows to lead him or herself through truthful and meaningful life; By doing so, he or she serves as an example for others to follow.

[1] Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 1120–1145.

[2] Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic Leadership: Development and Validation of a Theory-Based Measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89-126.‏

[3] George, B. (2007) True north: Discover your authentic leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[4] Ariely, D. (2012). Partisan Standards of Ethics. The blog. Retrieved from: http://danariely.com/2012/07/30/partisan-standards-of-ethics/

[5] Jeste, D. V., & Gawronska, M. (2014). Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.‏

[6] Avolio, B. J., & Luthans, F. (2006). The high impact leader: Authentic, resilient leadership that gets results and sustains growth. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[7] Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 1120–1145.

[8] Goleman, D. P. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ for character, health and lifelong achievement.‏

[9] Garrett, N., Lazzaro, S. C., Ariely, D., & Sharot, T. (2016). The brain adapts to dishonesty. Nature Neuroscience.‏