Being Authentic And Being A Leader
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.actionleadership.com
For more about the Leadership Talk: http://www.theleadershiptalk.com
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