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Authentic Leadership: Looking in the Mirror

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Authenticity, according to Webster'sDictionary, is being genuine. Genuine,suggests Webster's, means not being ahypocrite. And to be a hypocriteis "to feign qualities or beliefs that onedoes not actually possess or hold,especially a pretense of piety or moralsuperiority."

So to be truly genuine - or authentic -a leader requires a few things: To ensurethat one's corporate actions and rhetoric arealigned; to ensure that such actions aremeaningful (as opposed to superficial,headline-grabbing actions that don'ttake root beyond theorganization's need for disingenuouspublicity); and to ensure that one's publicpersona and private core are not at odds.

Even without the great degree of personaldiscernment required for Plato'sexamined life, it can be challenging formany leaders to ensure that their own andthe organization's rhetoric is borne out inthe actions taken individually andcollectively. We don't have to dig toodeeply to find an ample supply of corporatehypocrisy that results from a disconnectbetween good intention (or perhaps goodspin) and follow-through.

No, in most cases it's not a matter of evilpeople doing evil things for purposes ofunmitigated self-gratification. It's just that it'spretty easy to say things, to read a speechabout vision and ideals, to inaugurate anew initiative with a lofty tag line.It's not so easy to get an organization thathas assumed a life of its own, driven moreand more by the insatiable appetite ofshareholder value, to actually be thatideal. The proof is in the follow-through.That's where the level of leadershipcommitment and influence becomes evident.

And small businesses aren't immune. Iknow from my own experience as abusiness owner that it's easy to believe in a course of action,only to find that it's notthe best course of action a week later. Toget excited about a new idea, only to findout the idea's time has not yet come, orworse, it's not realistic in practice.Without straightforward communication,clearly articulated expectations, and anauthentic, stable core vision, the sort ofstrategic vacilation common to bothentrepreneurial companies and largecorporations can force a disconnectbetween that which is spoken and thatwhich is done.

We've all heard the grapevine storiesabout organizations thattout one thing publically while doing quiteanother behind closed doors. Exampleswould include the communication firmthat doesn't practice skillfulcommunication; or the large corporationthat's recognized for its great workenvironment while it conducts round afterround of layoffs and is permeated by areal culture of enforced workaholism. Orthe large company that, in a competitivejob market, perpetuates the myth that it's"flat" by calling its leaders "coaches" orits employees "associates" or "teammembers." Is it any wonder that we live ina time in which corporate spin andemployee cynicism have skyrocketed?

In any organization, anauthentic leader gets ahead of theoften unavoidable, sometimes unpleasantbusiness realities, and communicates bothrealities and possibilities in a context ofuncompromising honesty. He or shewithstands the temptation to adopt popularbuzzwords if he knowsthere's inadequate commitment tolong-term support required for aninitiative or ideal to take root and survive.She doesn't pretend the company has nohierarchy when both its size andits production requirements makehierarchy of some sort a necessity.

Authentic leadership may indeedbe more possible in privately ownedcompanies, given the tremendous pressureon leaders in public companies to squeezeevery possible penny of profit forshareholders, regardless of thedeleterious effect on the organization'sculture, employees, or customers. Are thechief executives of large, publiccompanies - like most politicians - morelike actors than true leaders?

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization or situation. Please use it mindfully. The most effective communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get individualized assistance from a communication expert.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. Coauthor Sarah Fenson is Ivy Sea's Guide to Client Services.

Last updated: Mar 21, 2000




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