This is a brilliant question for self reflection on your leadership identity and purpose. It’s also the title of a bestselling HBR article and book of Goffee & Jones*. The book finds easily it’s way to business schools and leaders. And rigthly so, as more and more people and organisations are on the quest for authenticity. But I’m not sure if this book is the right companion for this quest.
The basic proposition of the book is deceivingly simple. Goffee & Jones define leadership is situational, non-hierarchical and relational. And because the traditional sources of structure have weakened and modern technocratic society alienates people, there’s a need for authentic leadership. “People want to be led by a person, not by a corporate apparatchik.”
“What it takes to be an authentic leader?”, is the subtitle of the book. The recipee is also deceivingly simple:
1) Know and show yourself enough, also framed as ‘skillful self-disclosure’.
2) Take personal risks. Make it personal. Be present as a person.
3) Read and rewrite the context. Leadership starts with observing and understanding and then passes to adapting to the situation and change it.
4) Remain authentic while conforming enough. “Authentic leaders tease their organisational culture.”
5) Manage social distance: use bandwith to shift from distance to closeness as needed.
6) Communicate with care.
I’m fine with the simplicity of the messages and the withgoing normative undertone. It’s a good introduction and eye-opener for organisations who have become “machines for the destruction of leadership … and have given rise to legions of disenchanted followers.” The recipee to get connected to one’s inner theatre and to start talking and acting in a real, emotionally loaded way is the right one to enhance engagement and creativity.
What bothers me more is the instrumental motivation to become real. Already on page 2 Goffee & Jones state: “Make no mistake: leadership is about results.” And all along their book, they struggle with the effectivity of authenticity: “show your weakness in a smart way”, “remain authentic, but conform enough”. They hesitate. The second part of the book becomes straightforward people ‘management’ as we know it from normative leadership models: manage your distance, communicate your vision, define actionable steps, provide rewards…
The book is stuck in the middle between the transactional & authentic transformational leadership ‘worlds’. In the transactional world followers are instruments to fulfill larger objectives. Leadership behaviour is ‘doing the right thing’ to get people to work for you. Leadership is rational and has economic purpose. In the authentic transformational world followers are real human beings. Leadership behaviour aims at making people stronger, self-steering, intrinsicly motivated. Leadership is relational and has multiple purposes.
Goffee & Jones prove with their book that changing from the transactional to the authentic transformational world is a real shift in values and identity. They put the finger on the complexity of authentic transformational leadership: the tough trade-offs to make, the paradoxes to transcend. But by sticking to the assumption that in the end the result counts, they don’t fully embrace this complexity, the ‘and-and’ mindset of the authentic leader. It’s not only about changing your behaviour. It also changes the result focus.
So, not the best book on authentic leadership, but maybe after all, because of it’s ambiguity, a good companion for people at the beginning or in the midst of their transformation process to authenticity…
*GOFFEE, R. & JONES G. (2006). Why should anyone be led by you? Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 244 p.