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Elise Lelon

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The Fraud of Authentic Leadership

Posted: 11/09/11 09:24 AM ET

Leaders who describe themselves as "authentic" are like sentences that start with, "To be honest" or "The truth be told." More often than not, they're warning signs of lies to come. Whenever big cheeses proclaim "authentic leadership" as their effective guiding principle, chances are they're not so authentic, and they may not be effective or principled either.

Take Herman Cain -- pre-sexual harassment accusations. His self-titled book, This is Herman Cain! My Journey to the White House, is an I-am-who-I-am autobiography that begins as straightforward as it gets with: "My name is Herman Cain." In it, he describes himself as an anti-politician who disdains Washington's smoke and mirrors. He writes: "I don't do teleprompters -- I like to say I'm a leader not a reader," and "We need leadership, not more position-ship." All this unapologetic plain speak from a man who, in his press conference yesterday, did some positioning and re-positioning of his own. Cain addressed the mounting harassment allegations against him by saying, "I have never acted inappropriately with anyone period." A few minutes later, he went on to contradict his emphatic denial by admitting that there is a possibility he might remember differently in the future, and that he wouldn't be surprised if more accusations followed. In so doing, Cain showed the same slight of hand that he routinely contests. The self-pronounced "CEO of Self" appears challenged by having to execute on his own leadership promise to be who he really is.

These days, it's in vogue -- not just for politicians, but also for business chieftains and organizational executives alike -- to hang the authentic banner over their heads during speeches and in the taglines of branding campaigns. To be fair, our culture's current emphasis on authenticity is, at least in part, an understandable backlash against the betrayal of the Enrons, John Edwards and Madoffs who conned us. As a nation, we're still smarting from having our good faith profoundly violated. To reassure their employees, customers, shareholders and communities that they are not capable of such duplicity, many leaders give lip service to being transparent.

Sure, we want our leaders to tell the truth and behave consistently with the values they espouse. And, yes, it makes more sense to boast about one's authenticity than deceit, but why make a point of mentioning it at all? The answer to that question lies not only in the shattered collective trust of hard working employees, once loyal voters and all-in-investors-gone-bankrupt. The call to authenticity is also heralded by the full access and full disclosure culture of social media, omnipresent paparazzi and 24/7 news. What we're left with is a group of leaders who publicly promote themselves as real.

Therein lies the rub.

Promotion and realness may not be contradictory by definition, but frequently, they are cut from separate cloths. Consider reality television. As viewers, we know that the table-turning brawls and salacious trysts are probably not real. They are "situations" developed by writers who know what sells. And yet, something in us wants to believe that the story lines are true. Producers of these shows bank on our desire to see "real life" unedited and promote their shows as such. But, they are paid for creating and promoting the appearance of reality, not for being real.

Self-proclaimed "authentic leaders" are often less dramatic than episodes of The Housewives of Wherever, but beware. They may be directing similar charades. While they come in all shapes and sizes, leaders who make a habit of publicizing their genuineness fall into three categories: The "Beacon of Blind Spots," the "I'm Gonna Be Me Defense" and the "People-Pleasing Wool-Puller." Read below to see if any of the following descriptions sound familiar.

The "Beacon of Blind Spots" leader is the kind who is not aware how unaware she is. On the one hand, she might be unsure exactly what she stands for. The idea of presenting herself as human, fallible, and figuring-it-out-as-she-goes serves as a comforting CYA blanket to hide behind. On the other hand, the "Beacon of Blind Spots" may clearly articulate what she stands for, but be entirely unaware that she is not the thing or things for which she stands.

One example of the "Beacon of Blind Spots" is Lee Raymond, former Chairman and CEO of Exxon Corporation, who once said: "Everyone in this company works for the general good -- and I am the general of that general good." Despite what sounds like socially conscious concern for the well being of the world outside of Exxon, Raymond abandoned his role as "general of the general good" because of two critical blind spots: human rights and global warming. As a result, although he drove profits up, many non-shareholders saw him as the general of more harm than good. For example, Forbes said that Raymond made "deals with regimes that lean(ed) toward the diabolical." Under his leadership, human rights activists charged Exxon Mobil with supporting repressive regimes in Indonesia. In addition, Raymond dismissed global warming as a non-issue -- a shortsighted position that had destructive impact on both his company and the environment.

The "I'm Gonna Be Me Defense" (sometimes referred to -- even in the most bipartisan of circles -- as "The Sarah Palin") plays the down-home, love me with my warts, hunting riffles, and all card. Here's the problem with this kind of "authentic leader": one can be both authentic and inept at the same time. It's just authentically bad leadership. This type of leader tends to have some boundary issues -- for example, over-sharing at organizational pep rallies or with family snapshots on company websites (or on television programs, as the case may be). While the show-and-tell nature of these leaders may border on inappropriate, the bigger hazard is when the overly personal exposure is actually a cover-up for professional incompetence. For these leaders and their followers, letting it all hang out usually leads to letting a lot of hopeful constituents down.

On the cover of a biography about his career called Chainsaw, former CEO of Sunbeam Corporation, Al Dunlap, poses with a gun in each hand, two leather, cartridge belts crisscrossing his chest with bullets running end to end, and a black bandana wrapped around his head. A classic example of the "I'm Gonna Be Me Defense," Al Dunlap was brought into Sunbeam because of his image as a tough but effective turnaround guy. In his own book, Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great, Dunlap promotes this badass image with pride. Dunlap writes: "You're not in business to be liked. Neither am I. We're here to succeed. If you want a friend, get a dog." Ironically, by the end of his tenure, Dunlap needed more than a dog to dig him out of his own mess. Boldly being his "Rambo in Pinstripes" self by laying off 6000 Sunbeam employees (50% of the workforce), and closing down dozens of warehouses, factories and offices, Dunlap ended up not succeeding after all. Soon following his own turnaround victory announcement, it was determined that Dunlap had questionable financial management practices. Under his very "authentic" leadership, Sunbeam ended up $2 B in debt, with a $200 M shortfall and the threat of $1.7 B in bank loans being called the quarter before Dunlap was fired.

And last but not least insidious, there is the "People-Pleasing Wool-Puller". A charismatic communicator, this leader is a master of all things interpersonal. The good news is that they tend to be intelligent, shrewd negotiators and goal-driven catalysts. The bad news is that they're also manipulative and often narcissistic. While they might frame their authenticity as being of service to you, the bottom line is that, like everything else in their lives, the authenticity gig actually serves them. (The two are not mutually exclusive, except when push comes to shove and the leader has to choose between two sets of interests.) Unlike the "Beacon of Blind Spots," this leader has x-ray vision. He is acutely aware of what you want to hear and is brilliant at telling it to you. So brilliant, in fact, that you don't realize how every feel-good conversation leaves you impressed by his magnificence, rather than your own. The "People-Pleasing Wool-Puller" is generous with favors, the ultimate Trojan Horse. But, hidden inside the belly of those good deeds are self-serving motives. This leader intentionally uses his guiles to make you feel at ease, telling you implicitly or explicitly, "What you see is what you get." But, make no mistake. What you see has very little to do with what you get. In the end, it's all about what you don't see and what he gets that counts.

Among the long list of "Wool Pullers" in our recent memory are: Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco International, who will forever be infamous for throwing a people pleasing $2 M birthday party in the Mediterranean for his wife; the formidable, finger-pointing, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"-denying, Bill Clinton; Former Enron CFO, Andrew Fastow, and CEO, Kenneth Lay; and of course, Bernie Madoff, who spent years pleasing his investors with unreasonably good returns and arguing that, in today's regulatory environment, it is "virtually impossible for a violation to go undetected" -- all the while masterminding a $65 B Ponzi scheme that cheated not only SEC rules but his investors' life savings.

Truly authentic leaders show their stripes through their actions, not by practicing down-to-earth intonations with voice coaches or doing Tyra Banks-style "Smeyes" in front of mirrors. Highly intelligent people tend not to wear their IQ scores on their foreheads, and seriously wealthy people generally don't speak much about money. So wouldn't it follow that leaders who are being real are busy just being, instead of selling themselves as such?

To be honest, authenticity isn't a bad word. But, whether you're a titan of industry, a guy running for office, or just an everyday Joe, it's probably best to use the term "authentic" in reference to something other than yourself.

 

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