Authenticity is the real thing

FRAMINGHAM (02/13/2004) - Michael Useem, a respected author and professor at Wharton, told me a story about inviting a Marine Corps general to his MBA class to talk about leadership. The general was not just any general. He was Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pace arrived ten minutes early and by the beginning of class had introduced himself to each student. What Pace did was make a direct and personal connection with the people to whom he was speaking. This four-star general could have stood apart letting his medals do all the talking. Such is not Pace's style. His communications reflect who he is as a leader as well as why he is a leader. His communications embody his commitment to people. Peter Pace is authentic.

The Quest for Authenticity

There is a great deal of talk these days about authenticity. And with good reason. There is so little of it to go around. Two years ago, as stories of corporate thievery and malfeasance mounted, people wondered whatever happened to honesty, integrity and ethics -- hallmarks of authenticity. Now, it may be making a comeback. A short while ago, Phil Condit, the CEO of The Boeing Co., resigned because his company was embroiled in multiple scandals. Condit was not implicated in any way, but he thought it honorable to step aside to enable Boeing to move forward. That was an authentic action.

Authenticity is not a nice-to-have; it's a leadership imperative. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic Inc., has written a best-selling book on the topic, Authentic Leadership, packed full of keen insights on how act and be a genuine leader. Communications is essential to that conveyance process. Every manager must resonate a degree of authenticity. In simplest terms, it means you stand up for what you believe and you deliver on what you promise. Simple, yes, but challenging to live by.

Here are some ways you can demonstrate authenticity through communications.

Set expectations about what you expect. No, this is not my feeble attempt at Zen mastery. Expectations for performance, e.g., objectives, are typically inward looking; they itemize what an employee must do for the coming year. Expectations about what you as the manager expect of your team are outward looking. You communicate to your people how you want them to interact with each other. You can set expectations for courtesy and comity. In other words, people don't have to like each other, but they need to cooperate if they want things to get done. You as the manager must set those expectations and live by them.

Be available. Make a practice of keeping your door open as well as walking the halls. Let people know you want to hear their ideas. If you have not done this previously, you will have to work at getting people to speak up. You first need to establish a sense of trust. You do this by being available and by engaging people in conversation.

Listen to what others say. The physical effort required to listen must be little above that of sleeping. But the mental effort of listening can be Herculean. It requires patience and fortitude. You need to be patient with people who hem and haw, or might be intimidated by your presence. And you need to have fortitude to listen to things you have heard before or, more often, to things that are not going well.

Demonstrate that you have learned. When people tell you things, let them know that you have heard what they have said and that you understand them. Then as time goes on, mentally shift through what you have heard. If three people are saying the same thing, it's a trend. If the trend is pointing downward -- that is, if the response team is not fixing the network -- you need to investigate. If the trend is pointing upward -- that is, all customers are pleased with the software patch -- publicize it and thank people for doing the work.

Respect people as people. I know you learned this in kindergarten. When you take the time to speak to employees about work as well as what's on their minds, you demonstrate that you value them as people. When you listen to them and ask them questions in return, you further validate their humanity. And when you respond to issues and seek to make positive improvements, you demonstrate your commitment to them as employees. That is authentic leadership.

Authentic Payback

The flip side of authenticity is loyalty. When people see that you are a person of your word, they will trust you. And when they trust you, they will want to work for you as well as work with you. Even better, they will likely be willing to stand up for you when times are tough. Authenticity may be the Holy Grail of 21st-century management, and as such it is the writ by which we need to live and work.

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