Fiona Kennedy on "authentic" leadership

26 November 2016

Fiona Kennedy explains what underpins true "authentic" leadership. Dr Kennedy is a researcher and senior leadership facilitator in the New Zealand Leadership Institute, which is based at the Business School.

Video transcript


I think the call for authenticity is related to three really important things. The first is that it provides an answer. There have been a lot of different modes of leadership – transformational leadership, authentic leadership – and it says "here it is, there is a way to do this." Secondly, it has been a response to bad leadership. So, people know that there have been leaders who have taken people down the wrong path and taken away their houses and their jobs, and led them to do things that are awful. So "authentic leadership" is a term that captures the idea of leaders who are good and are connected to what is right, and their true selves. But the third thing, of late, is that authenticity has had a comeback, and this seems to be connected to the rise of postmodernism and the idea that we don't know what is real anymore, or that what is real is on the move.  So, authenticity can seem like a way of saying we can grab reality and we can hold it firm and know what it is.


Authenticity held in that way is not the answer. It is very problematic. Firstly, it implies that the leader is who he or she is separate from others. So, it creates the idea of individuals who are not in relationship. And leadership is the last place where you want to conjure up that notion.


What leaders need is the ability to be connected and responsive in the moment. It is really not that useful to have an idea of a solid and enduring self disconnected from whatever is going on in the environment, let alone in environments that are uncertain, ambiguous, and changing.


If you think about leadership in relationship, or if you pop relationship into authenticity, you get a different idea. So, I can be my true self, and I may have looked back at my past life and know what is influencing me, but what does that actually mean, in the moment, in particular circumstances. And I will give you an example of somebody I was working with yesterday who said: "I know why I am so dominating in conversations. It is because I come from an Italian family. We fight like mad and we all leave as friends."


And he said to his team "and that's the way it is, isn't it." Well, actually, no. Because he is not in his Italian family right now. He is in a situation where half the team are not contributing, and God knows he needs that. They all need that for the work they have to do. So, his sense of who he is, is partial. It needs to be connected to: What are we here to do, and what is going on in my relationship with others?


The idea of an enduring self is appealing and we like it. It means we can truck off and look at our life stories and then we know who we are. And it is so attainable. The idea that we are many different selves is a harder idea for people to swallow. And it can sound superficial. It can sound as if in this situation I am needing to be this, and in that situation I am needing to be that. And it can get separated from authenticity for folks. What is helpful with that is to think about what is being called from me in this situation. I am responding in a situation, not just because of who I am, but because of who you are, and what you are eliciting from me. Followers elicit stuff from leaders. They elicit: save us, give us the clear, firm, simple answers that we are craving. So, in fact, authenticity requires an awareness of who you are being in the situation, what is being elicited in terms of yourself, and what other dimensions of yourself you have to draw on, that are going to better meet the purpose of that situation. Because leadership is for something, it is not an end in itself.


The idea that you will call up other dimensions of yourself because of the needs of a situation is really challenging. It requires a lot more of leaders than self-reflection and reviewing your life story. Authenticity tends to stop there. It is I am who I am, and I know who I am. But this requires the courage to throw yourself into dimensions of yourself that you really haven't developed. It is like a muscle – you haven't used it. So, it is really easy to stick with the ones that you do use. That is the work. The work is not reviewing your life story, it is going into realms that you are not familiar with and having the courage to do that and to be different.


One of my favourite organisational theorists says in leadership you need to drop your tools. We are carrying these tools, and they weigh us down. And some of the old tried-and-true tools – do my life story, self-reflection – yes, you pick them up from time to time, but in authenticity the work is even more about putting those tools down and going into new territory.


So, if we think about the dynamic that gets set up, it takes some sophistication and clarity of purpose on the part of a leader to cut through the dynamics that build a leader up to be someone they can't possibly be, in terms of taking on the needs and problems of others, and to get people involved in the work that they are there to do.


An example of that that I really like is when Tom Peters came in to one of my colleague's classrooms, and Peters was talking about leadership with a small group of quite select students who are in a graduate business programme. And people were inspired and delighted. And here they were with Tom Peters, kind of like his colleagues. The vibe in the room was exciting for people. And at some point a student said: "Tom, can you tell us about one of the toughest points or lessons from your career." And Tom responded with hard tales that were personal about the cost of being in the limelight. And it punctured the bubble to some degree of what was going on in that room. I would argue that Tom had his eye on what he was there to do. He was there to contribute to their learning. And he actually broke an emerging idea of a leader as a special person.

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