Yvette Smith, General Manager Cloud and Enterprise Business Unit of Microsoft

by M. Eric Johnson, Dean at Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management

Authenticity may be one the most sought after attributes. Whether we are talking music or hamburgers, “authentic” conveys a notion of purity. In a day of synthetic experiences, authentic says no additives or substitutes – just the real thing.

When applied to leadership, this definition sometimes gets confusing. On the one hand, authentic leaders are true and real – guided by admirable core values and showing empathy to those around them, while looking to the horizon with vision and purpose. Retired Medtronic CEO and author Bill George argues that authentic leaders demonstrate five qualities:

  • ·       Understanding their purpose
  • ·       Practicing solid values
  • ·       Leading with heart
  • ·       Establishing connected relationships
  • ·       Demonstrating self-discipline

On the other hand, some argue that authentic leaders also allow the world to see their true selves – unwilling to project confidence or false humility when they are frightened of losing control. Nothing is hidden or constrained. If a leader goes on a tirade or locks herself in her office to avoid addressing failure, it might not be pleasant, but it is authentic.

Viewed this way, authenticity doesn’t always sound so desirable. In his recent book, Leadership BS, Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer notes that such authenticity is not a virtue. “The last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is ‘authentic’ – at least if authentic means both being in touch with and exhibiting their true feelings. In fact, being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do Leaders do not need to be true to themselves. Rather, leaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them,” he writes.

So, which is it? George certainly would argue that there is nothing dishonest or fake about self-control. Resisting impulses to criticize suburbanites or express insecurity is not inauthentic. Others might go beyond George’s five qualities to allow leaders to be more human, acknowledging that work life is just one facet of the person.

For example, Microsoft’s Yvette Smith asserts that it is important to bring her whole self to her work. That includes the fact that she is a mother, wife, daughter, and an African American – being comfortable in who she is, what she knows, and what she doesn’t know. Allowing others to see those elements helps her leadership team be more authentic themselves and motivates the organization to do their best work.

Are there limits to authenticity? What do you hope to see in your leaders?

For more of Yvette Smith’s thoughts on leadership, technology, and the challenges of being a woman in technology, click below:


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *