When Does Acting Authentically become Plain Old Obstinacy? – by Donna Ladkin and Chellie Spiller

Federal Government Shutdown sign

photo credit: NPCA Photos via Flickr cc

We’ve been watching the recent shut-down of the US government from a distance, being an American living in the UK, and a New Zealander with close US links.  As we observed the various arguments and driving of ideological stakes into the ground we’ve been wondering how many of the protagonists in this ‘war of wills’ feel they are working from their ‘true, authentic’ self?

Faced with further impasses looming on the horizon, will the same en-trenched, rigid barricading of one supposedly “authentic” camp versus another roll out again?  Are we to witness yet more talking for hours to prevent the other side from getting its point across, fear-instilling advertising, and the on-going threat to people’s livelihoods?  Positions are being taken from seemingly deeply-rooted convictions.  How else can this kind of brinkmanship be explained? Is what we are witnessing the consequence of ‘authentic leadership’ in action? These questions hint at the disquiet we feel with the notion of ‘authentic’ leadership when it is thought of as an enactment of the ‘inner’ self, or a way of being ‘true’ to oneself.  Especially when such authenticity leads Congressmen and women, ostensibly being ‘true’ to their inner principles, to hold the entire US government to ransom.  If this is authentic leadership, is it such a good thing?

On the other hand, many of the organizational leaders we work with note the sense of disquiet they feel when organizational requirements force them to take actions that ‘go against their principles’ or which do not sit well with their own values and aspirations.  Having to keep quiet when privy to news of an organizational restructure in which many people will lose their jobs, or overseeing projects doomed to failure because ‘central office’ ordains it, can be a stressful and disheartening experience.  People readily talk about how much easier it is to do work when it resonates with their sense of ‘self’, how being able to enact one’s deeply felt principles is empowering and enlivening.  Followers too, sense when a leader believes what she is saying, and respond accordingly.  So, at the same time that we worry about ‘authenticity’ and how it can be driven by self-centredness and ideology, we also recognise the importance humans place on being able to align their inner sense of value with their enacted self.

Perhaps there is some sort of resolution in this seeming paradox by offering a different notion of the self to which one can be authentic.  Rather than being formed solely through inner experience, and somehow fully formed and ‘rigid’, this self might be seen and experienced as a ‘self in progress’.  In this way it would be more open, more flexible and primarily curious.  Deeply held convictions might be held more lightly by such a self.  Such a self would inquire into the various roles it plays, and might notice itself as part of a larger cosmos of significance to other ‘selves’ as well.

Is it possible to be both grounded in one’s values, but open to the world and situation in which one finds oneself?  Is it possible to be ‘true to oneself’ while being open to the truth of another?  In this way, is the self to which one might be committed a self that is in constant development, rather than being a once and for-all project?

The perils of such a self is that it feels slippery.  It is hard to get hold of and nail down ‘once and for all’.  However, could there be liberation in the realisation of such a self?  A freedom which would allow one to grow and respond to the world, as well as to one’s inner calling and directedness?

Our recent book, Authentic Leadership:  Conflicts, Convergences and Coalescences poses these kinds of questions.  Rather than trying to arrive at a pat answer to the paradox of authenticity, it aims to open up the discussion around this topic.  It reveals both its shining, noble side, and also its shadow – a shadow that if left unbridled, can unravel into the kind of ideological brinkmanship on show within recent American politics. In this way, although many of our authors take issue with the way in which authentic leadership has been framed and theorized, it also notes that at the core of the concept there seems to be something worth paying attention to.  It is that core understanding that lets itself be known between human beings in genuine dialogue, perhaps, or the embodied sense that there is more than ‘façade’ behind a person’s stance.

In this way, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, the book reveals some of the complexity inherent in this topic, in an effort to perhaps shed light on the lynchpin points at which authenticity morphs into obstinacy, ideology, or just plain arrogance.  As one of our authors asks, ‘what if your ‘true self’ is a jerk?  Is it still OK to act from that place as a leader?’  Probably not.  Similarly, if the consequence of acting from your ‘authentic self’ is the shut down in the world’s largest democracy, perhaps it’s time to reconsider what other ‘self’ you might act from.

Donna Ladkin profile pictureDonna Ladkin is Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Cranfield School of Management in the UK.  A philosopher and musician by background, her research interweaves these orientations into her approach to studying leadership, organizational ethics and sustainability-focused organizational practices.




Chellie Spiller profile pictureChellie Spiller researches, writes and lectures at the University of Auckland Business School. Her research investigates how Māori and other Indigenous businesses create relational wealth and well-being. She is a recipient of a 2011 Dame Mira Szászy Māori Alumni Award, 2011 National Māori Academic Excellence Award, and 2010 AuSM Best Lecturer Award, AUT University. 


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