Does an Authentic Leader need to act the part?

Posted by Sheila in Authentic Leaders, Uncategorised on 29th October 2012 | be the first to Comment »
I’d been coaching a client, I’ll call him John, for several months.  John was a Leader running a large department in a not-for-profit organisation. His main coaching goal was to build better relationships with his peer management team in order to ensure that more of his ideas were taken up by the organisation.  While he had strong relationships with his direct reports and a high performing department, his peer relationships were tense and consequently less productive.  We had been working on this for a while. One day at the end of a particularly intense session, John raged in frustration.   The ensuing exchange, which went roughly as follows, was light hearted but food for thought:
John:   This is too hard…why don’t you just give me the arts to pretend to get along with
my colleagues.
Me: (stung… caught in the moment and  unable to respond with an illuminating question)
I can’t just give you the arts to pretend to do something you don’t believe in -and anyway even if I could –  I don’t want to.
John:   But you have to – it’s your job, you’re my coach …so WHY NOT!
Me: Because, it’s not authentic and your colleagues would see straight through the pretence no matter how artful
John Hrummmmmph.
Me Humm…
This exchange raises a number of questions. I held John’s difference and challenge to his peers to be both desirable and positive for both him and the organisation but was I unconsciously echoing what Goffman (1959) describes as ‘ a belief that we tend to see real performance as something not purposefully put together at all – being an unintentional product of the individual’s unselfconscious response to the facts in his situation?’ I saw John as authentic believing that training him ‘to perform’  in a way contrary to his natural style would damage his ‘realness’ and possibly his credibility with his peers.   However, taking this view to an extreme, what happens when a leader doesn’t manage his or her performance,  and  speaks  or behaves exactly as he or she thinks or feels at any given  moment?  This person may be perceived as real, but are they an appropriate or credible leader?   What are the implications for the organisation and what is the role of the coach and communication specialist here?
Three years later,  following in-depth conversations with Leaders and Coaches, I’ve started to come up with some answers to this and other questions around Leader authenticity and I look forward to sharing my findings at the Institute of Internal Communication’s Insight Forum Trusted to Lead at the Radisson Blu Edwardian on 21 November.  ( to book Email

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