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Being Authentic And Being A Leader

Brent Filson

Johnny Cash said, "We played it and sang it the way we felt it, and a whole lot can be said for that."

Most people agree that one thing Johnny Cash had going for him was that he was authentic. He knew who he was and he put across who he was. And that's a leadership lesson.

You can take myriads of leadership courses and get management degrees; but if you don't internalize Johnny Cash's dictum, your career will fall far short of its potential.

One of the most persistent complaints I've heard over the years about leaders is they are not "authentic." In fact, I've found that not being authentic is a common affliction of most leaders in all walks of life.

Not being authentic means projecting a persona as a leader that conflicts with your true character -- i.e., you don't say what you feel and feel what you say. The words person/persona come from an Etruscan root meaning "actor's mask." The leader's person is a mask shown to the world. It may be a leader projects an arrogant, know-it-all mask while in reality h/she is amicable and a good listener. It may be a leader projects a continuously reproachful visage when in reality that leader has an absolutely wonderful dry sense of humor and a tender disposition. It may be a leader believes showing no emotion and being a dull presenter of facts and figures is the way to get people to do things when in reality that person has a kind heart and a penchant for generosity. There are countless ways leaders can "mask" their real self with a counterfeit.

The masks leaders put on are often less human and more disagreeable than the real person behind the mask. These leaders go through their whole careers and either don't know they wear a mask; or; if they do know, they are fearful of removing it or they take the wrong steps to remove it.

What a tragedy; for clearly, leadership is a key driver of job performance and career success; and communicating authenticity is a way of dramatically increasing one's leadership effectiveness. Furthermore, it's a double-tragedy because this mask-affliction can be somewhat easily pointed out; though to remedy it often takes a zealous commitment to breaking deeply ingrained bad habits.

The word "authentic" comes from Greek meaning "one who acts on his own authority."

This certainly holds true for Johnny Cash. He was able through his songs and music to establish deep, human, emotional connections with people mainly because he sang and acted "on his own authority" - performing out of raw, deeply felt impulses.

Great leadership too must come from deeply felt impulses. That's where authenticity comes in. Leadership is more than simply giving orders. The order-giving way of leadership is the lowest form of leadership; and it is leadership that most lends itself to the afflictive mask.

You may get people to respond to an order (especially if paychecks are involved); but only when you establish deep, human, emotional connections with people will they go out of their way to accomplish the often painful, difficult tasks needed to get exceptional results. If you're not authentic, you're less likely to establish those connections.

There are two paths to being authentic. The inner path and the outer path.

THE INNER PATH: Before you can be authentic you must BE authentic. This seeming tautology points to a deep truth about authenticity: it's not only a state of awareness, it's a state of being. There has been a lot written about getting in touch with your feelings and living life from that contact, but though much of what has been promulgated ranges from useless to somewhat useful, you can disregard it. To be authentic, BE HELPFUL.

Look at it this way: two questions hang in the air when a leader speaks to people. (1) Can you do your job; i.e. do you have the skills, experience, and knowledge to be in the position you are in? (2) Why are you here? If you don't answer both those questions, the people will (consciously or unconsciously) -- and you may not like the answer you get.

I can't help you answer the first question. That answer is up to how you have developed professionally in your career. But all my books, articles, and courses can help you answer the second question.

The second answer goes right to the heart of authenticity. The answer should be tied to the Leader's Imperative: "As we go about achieving the needed results, we will together grow professionally and personally."

Every morning when we wake up we should generate our motivation for the day by re-committing to the Leadership Imperative. "Today, I'll try my best in every interaction with every person to get results while helping them grow in their job skills and their personal skills." Your authenticity will develop in the crucible of that daily, inner commitment.

THE OUTER PATH: This leads to the most important part of authenticity: Your authenticity is useless in leadership terms unless it is communicated.

The vehicles of communication are the Leadership Imperative and the Leadership Talk. (See more about the Leadership Talk at my website.) And the methods of communication are through daily words and actions.

Here's an example: On January 13, 1982, an Air Florida Flight 90 took off from Washington National Airport on a snowy day, without having accomplished pre-departure de-icing measures. With ice weighing down its wings, the plane couldn't get the right altitude. It struck the 14th street bridge and plunged into the Potomac river.

Lenny Skutnick, a civil servant, was one of a crowd of onlookers watching as a rescue helicopter attempted to lift survivors out of the water. When one woman, freezing to death in the icy waters, kept failing to grasp the rescue harness, Skutnick jumped in, swam to her, and brought her to the shore. Later, he was hailed as a hero by Ronald Reagan in his state of the union address. Nobody could say that Skutnick wasn't being authentic.

Of course, this is an exceptional example. It's not every day that leaders are faced with life and death situations. But in this case, the exception proves the rule. Lenny Skutnick was there for that woman. He risked all to bring her out of that river. Here's the rule: When you are perceived by the people to put your personal interests aside and take risks for them, your authenticity is most effectively communicated.

Be warned: Don't fake authenticity. Comedian George Burns underscored the point by making a joke of it. He said, "If you can fake authenticity in Hollywood, you've got it made." The trouble is, you're probably not in Hollywood. Faking authenticity can be death everywhere else. After all, just giving the appearance of putting one's interests aside and taking risks for the people does not necessarily mean the words and actions flow from pure motives. There are leaders who put on a show of authenticity to deceive others and further their own interests. If the people recognize this, if they see you trying to manipulate their feelings by faking it, the backlash could be a sight to behold.

I'm not talking about anything new. Authenticity has been a source of leadership strength throughout history. The Roman statesman and orator said, "A good speech is a good man speaking well," meaning that the audience needs to perceive the speaker as authentic.

In the end, the art of leadership is the primordial art of simply being yourself. Cherish authenticity and communicate it with precision and passion, and it will reward you like few other assets throughout your career.

© 2006, 2007 The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's most recent books are: THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. - and for more than 21 years has been helping leaders of top companies worldwide get audacious results. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get a free white paper: "49 Ways To Turn Action Into Results," at

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