A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
August 4th, 2013 by William

Authenticity Deficit Disorder

Of all the traits that great leaders should have, the vaguest and hardest to understand, is probably “authenticity.” We’ve all heard it said that a great boss must be “authentic,” or “genuine.” But what exactly does this mean?

The World English Dictionary defines authentic as: “of undisputed origin or authorship; genuine: an authentic signature, or; accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable.” That’s probably what most of us would think of if we had to define authenticity. But that doesn’t tell the whole story about authenticity.

In practice authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existentialist philosophy. In philosophy, authenticity is “the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.”

In psychology it’s defined as “the quality of being genuine and true to one’s own values.” The Psychology Dictionary provides a good example. “In psychotherapy and counseling, [authenticity is] a valued characteristic of the therapist, who must be considered to be genuine and caring. Authenticity is often demonstrated by a professional with down-to-earth attitude such that the client senses a true person and not simply the therapist acting in his or her professional role.” From a business leadership perspective it’s the psychological definition that’s most useful when we attempt to determine if a leader, or boss, is authentic.

The term authenticity is also described as; “owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs, and to know oneself and act in accord with the true self, expressing oneself in ways that are consistent with inner thoughts and feelings.”

If you look at the definition of authenticity it might be hard for someone to tell if the boss is: “owning his/her personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, wants, preferences, or beliefs.” There probably aren’t any outward signs of these traits of authenticity.

So how can you tell if your boss suffers what I call the “Authenticity Deficit Disorder?”

Given how subjective authenticity really is, that maybe a tall order. So to help, I’ve tried to synthesize all those perspective definitions into what might be the “observable” basic personality traits of someone with true “authenticity.” Someone can be said to be authentic if;

  • They speak with candor and honesty
  • They have a willingness to share accountability
  • They exhibit true empathy (recall my past blog posts of this subject)
  • They say what they mean and mean what they say–they walk the walk not just talk the talk
  • They are motivated by personal convictions–values
  • They lead from their own personal point of view not necessarily from the “party line”
  • They are true to themselves rather than conforming to the expectations of others, i.e. they aren’t yes-men or sycophants
  • They aren’t faking leadership (believing they are leading but really having no followers)

This last one is important as there’s an old saying; “if you think you’re leading and you turn around and no one is following then all you’re doing is taking a walk.”

That all said rather than emphasizing what it takes to be authentic per say, maybe another way to look at this is to focus attention on “inauthenticity.” This has been described as; “an excessive plasticity (the capacity for being molded or altered and the ability to retain a shape attained by pressure deformation) on the part of a leader seeking to comply with perceived demands arising from his/her [management] role.” In other words, a manager is being “inauthentic” when he or she is overly compliant (i.e., process and procedure wise), or downright obsessed, with the demands related to his/her management role.  You could say they’re someone who is “thoroughly convinced of their own importance.”

Those who are authentic are deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others and of their own and others’ values/moral perspectives, knowledge, and strengths–in other words they exhibit empathy. They are also aware of the context in which they operate; and are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and of high moral character.

As an aside that above reference to “plasticity”–the ability to retain a shape attained by pressure deformation–is interesting. It explains why many leaders–I should say managers–are, for lack of better words, stuffed shirts. They have been “playing leader” for so long–being “molded” by the daily pressures of management–that they forget to be human. They forget that leadership is how you relate to the people you’re leading and not all about how the business is running.

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I talk about the most common malady in business today called “The Harpagon Syndrome.” The syndrome is suffered by nearly all people who have reached the top rung of management. The syndrome is derived from the main character, Harpagon in the play L’Avare (English; The Miser), a 1668 five-act satirical comedy by French playwright Molière. In the play, Harpagon is a wealthy, money-mad old widower. He loves money more than reputation, honor, or virtue, and spends his time watching and guarding over it. It’s what destroys his relationships with the world.

Leaders (or I should again say managers) in organizations suffering from Harpagon Syndrome do the same fretting about the financial condition of their business to the extent they can’t become authentic leaders.

This is an example of the many demands placed on top management that molds them to the daily pressures of management and running an organization. The higher you go on the corporate pyramid the more the pressure to be “inauthentic.” This explains why many “would be” leaders are so surprise averse and actually create confrontation and crisis in their organizations. They become obsessed with guarding against any and all things that could upset the proverbial applecart. It also explains how they become micromanagers and workaholics.

Of course in the end another simple way to look at authenticity is for you to “just bring more of who you are to the table more often.” Authenticity doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive with leadership; in fact, I don’t know how someone could be called a “leader” without exhibiting authenticity. Suffering the Authenticity Deficit Disorder should not be a given as you rise to the top.

If you are of true leadership material being authentic should prove to be no problem. Of course if you’re a sociopath trying to “act” authentic it will be counterproductive–people will see through your act in a heartbeat. That’s why you just may be out for a walk after all.


2 Responses to “Authenticity Deficit Disorder”
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  2. Carole Baskett says

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