Inauthentic Leadership & The Cult of Personality
An examination of how reliance and trust in the cult of personality in business can bring about catastrophic failure
The following essay on leadership is an edit and update to one published here about 18 months ago as a podcast episode. Given it is such an important subject to business and broader life, leadership has become a core topic I have become interested in and offers a title to the forthcoming book Workplace Leadership to be published in June. More on that in a later post. Thanks for reading.
Little holds more importance to us human beings than how we are perceived. The image we present through our words, physical appearance, and behaviour tells the world who we are and what we stand for. It influences our worldview, the decisions we make in work and business, and how we see and treat others. In that sense, the world in all its beauty and depravity mirrors what we perceive and project ourselves to be. The centrality of the image is paramount and holds centre stage in all areas of life, including work, sport, religion, business, etc. In other words, it is the surface-level personality, the ego, and its collective forms that create the world we see. But we are not alone in its formation.
Consider our Western consumer culture, for example. Everywhere we look, advertisements are vying for our attention and hard-earned cash. Corporations spend hundreds of billions each year creating images that capture our interest, and in doing so, they have successfully identified and commoditised our deepest fears and desires. They present us with the perfect image of fulfilment and happiness and offer answers to our most burning questions. In Pavlovian terms, they ring the bell, and we salivate. Our concept of work and who we should be in the workplace is also heavily influenced by the images they sell us. They insist that if we are to succeed in the dog-eat-dog competitive marketplace, then we must embrace the culture of hustle and adopt a persona that is perhaps, not our own.
Never waste an opportunity to put yourself out there, they say, because the competition will get ahead. Therefore, you must be bright, shiny, loud, and above all, noticed. And so, we fill every moment of our day in active pursuit of the ideal. We wear a red tie with our power suit, tweet about entrepreneurial things, set goals, become productive, make money, accumulate toys, and measure success. If you want something, as the explicit message goes, you must go out there and get it. However, these ideals and images are liabilities sold as assets, and we spend lifetimes in the mode of accumulation of what, in reality, are fake plastic representations of life and the self.
In leadership, this imperative toward the centrality of the image is also dominant. Many scholars insist that our addiction to pursuing the image is indicative of a broader social ill with detrimental consequences for human relations. Just as Narcissus was drawn to his own image in the lake, human beings are increasingly oriented towards the image of success. In her work on the paradoxes of leadership, Slavica Kodish cites Psychoanalyst and anthropologist Michael Maccoby, who says, for example, that the story of the contemporary business world is a story of narcissistic leaders on the hunt for power and glory. For philosopher Michael Buber, it was a case of seeming rather than being, where seeming to be this or that tends towards a false image and prevents genuine relationships. We are prominently outcome-oriented and from that angle, we create and present a fake plastic form of ourselves. The actor puts on a show.
The Sunday Letters Journal is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“All Sizzle And No Steak”
In many human relations, we find a gulf between what we say and do. We like to think we are altruistic and caring for the needs of others, for example. We paint that picture because we like to think of ourselves in the best possible light and deny our darker side. But I wonder if our motivations are misplaced. I wonder if we are really just out for our own thinly veiled self-interest. In our everyday conversations, we are often prone to exaggeration and a certain casual representation of the facts in an effort to make ourselves look better than we might otherwise be. In business this is also true, and perhaps to an even greater extent.
Is that not what marketing is–to present ourselves and the products or services we sell in the “best” possible light? Is there, not a slight tendency to overstate the facts? Where is the line between authenticity and fantasy? As one of the dominant premises in sales departments throughout the capitalist world goes, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” In other words, it is the promise of a future experience that we are sold rather than the facts of the matter. It is the anticipation of our problems being solved or our desires being met that is sold to us. Strangely enough, we might even be aware of this yet still allow ourselves to fall into the honey pot. And so, in the world of business and indeed leadership, it is often more about impression management than truth, honesty, integrity and authenticity.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Collins’ Level 5 Model of leadership, where five years of research by Jim Collins and his team into the top-performing corporations in the Fortune 500 highlighted only 11 exceptionally performing companies. These 11 transitioned from what Collins and his team termed “good to great”. Most corporations examined in the study had sporadic periods of superior performance, whereas the 11 identified sustained their success over the long term. According to Jim Collins, this success was primarily influenced by a particular leadership style. It seemed that grand visions and purpose statements influence innovation, achievement, and healthy organisational culture only if the accompanying action and behaviour are congruent. In other words, there must be authenticity. The leader must walk the walk. Selling the “sizzle” isn’t enough.
The Inauthentic Leader
The centrality of the entrepreneurial image, the larger-than-life, red tie-wearing, rock star CEO has dominated popular culture and business management literature. Entrepreneurial rhetoric is full of sparkle and glamour and is hard to ignore. It encourages young executives and MBA graduates to pursue the ideal, and the ideal becomes ever more desirable. The complexity of personal attributes and the dynamic interaction between the self and its environment are reduced to an overly simplistic either-or scenario. Data, coupled with short-term self-oriented thinking, becomes the overwhelming metric upon which CEOs make decisions. The general thrust of the question is, “will this strategic move work out in our favour, will it make money, and how will I be perceived in the process?” And in this, there is a trade-off that is tied to the tenure of the leader which is often discounted or not at all considered.
The rock star entrepreneurial image is very attractive, but are the boardroom, investors, and aspiring entrepreneurs investing too much in the centrality of this image to be healthy? Consider the 2017 research by Quigley et al.that examined shareholder perception of CEO significance. Their research found that investors believe CEOs have a substantial degree of influence on the share price. This might be expected, so what’s the problem? Well, if the CEO garners unsubstantiated trust from shareholders based on his or her personality, this can create a significant weak point.
Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos
Consider the case of Elizabeth Holmes, the 19-year-old entrepreneur who founded Theranos in 2003. Holmes dropped out of Stanford University to pursue her dream of revolutionising the medical industry by creating a device that could run a range of medical tests for ailments such as cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer from only a tiny blood sample. With the support of her Stanford professor Channing Robertson, the company gained attention and financial backing of over $700 million from high-profile investors such as the Walton family and Rupert Murdoch. Theranos was subsequently valued at $9 billion, making Holmes one of the youngest self-made female billionaires in history.
She was said to have worshipped Steve Jobs and sought to emulate the image he portrayed by hiring former Apple designers, wearing black turtle neck sweaters, and developing a deeper tone to her voice in interviews. She became a media sensation and a celebrated visionary, appearing on the cover of Fortune, Forbes and Inc. magazines and was featured on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people. That same year, then Vice President Joe Biden visited the Theranos lab in Palo Alto and praised Holmes as an inspiration. Oh, the blessed lure of fame! She had arrived.
However, things were not all so rosy in the garden. The dream started to unravel when a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the technology behind the Theranos devices did not work as they said. The devices were not reliable or accurate, and the company was using standard blood testing equipment to perform many of the tests. The company was also engaging in unethical practices such as using misleading marketing materials and manipulating data to secure partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies. Holmes was subsequently accused and charged with fraud in 2018 and she was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison in mid-November 2022. After the birth of her second child, Holmes requested unsuccessfully to remain free while she appealed her conviction but was ordered by a federal court to begin her sentence on April 27 this year.
One former employee, Erika Cheung, testified that she and other employees were afraid to speak out or question Holmes because of her reputation for being ruthless and vindictive. Holmes' leadership style was described as authoritarian, secretive, and obsessive. She was also known for being a demanding boss who expected complete loyalty and dedication from her employees. Many workers spoke out about the toxic work environment at Theranos, describing long hours, high levels of stress, and a culture of fear and intimidation. Another former employee, Tyler Shultz, became a whistleblower after he discovered major issues with the technology and raised concerns with Holmes and other executives. Shultz faced retaliation from the company and from Holmes personally, including legal threats and attempts to silence him.
The downfall of Theranos and the legal troubles of Elizabeth Holmes offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of unquestioned trust in personality as a measure of leadership capacity. The case has also raised questions about the role of Silicon Valley and a trend of "fake it till you make it" in the tech industry. The rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes serve as a reminder that successful leadership is not about any individual and the image they present. It is also about personal and collective ethics, honesty, responsibility, and the effort of the entire organisation and the conditions in which they find themselves.
The Authentic Leader
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather a low-key and understated CEO driving moderate share growth over a long period than a superstar personality risking it all for a big win. Quigley and his research team seem to agree. They suggest that because CEOs are increasingly incentivised to go big or go home but are not fully penalised when they miss the target, executives are more likely to take unmitigated risks.
Over the past twenty years, research has been building in support of an alternative; authentic leadership. Researchers suggest that in a business environment that promotes style over substance, the need for individuals to honour their true selves has never been greater. The results of inauthentic results-driven leadership, the authors say, have brought a slew of ethical meltdowns and corporate misconduct, such as that by Elizabeth Holmes, to our attention. Not only does this behaviour bring a quick end to centuries-old organisations, but also a dramatic financial loss to ordinary Joe soap investors and damage to the environment.
Here’s what former Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and Senior Fellow of Corporate Governance at Harvard Law School, Leo E. Strine Jr., had to say on the matter in 2012. [You should absolutely read this article].
Not only do corporations have incentives to disregard risks for the sake of profits, but there is a natural tendency to pay attention to short-term profits over long-term risks. In fact, most of us place a higher value on immediate satisfaction than on the long-term risks created by such satisfaction. If we can get all the benefits of the immediate satisfaction for ourselves, and know that the longer-term costs will be shared with a lot of others, we go for today over tomorrow even more. And, when an industry is among the leaders in having lobbyists precisely for the purpose of minimizing governmental regulation of its activity, trusting that industry to balance environmental concerns and worker safety responsibly against the prospect of immediate profit would seem even more naïve.
A Definition of Authentic Leadership
In spite of the narcissistic self-image portrayed by leaders that so dominates business and many other areas of life, some stand out for the right reasons. Perhaps it’s better to say they stand out by not standing out. According to 2003 research by Gardner, Luthens and Avolio, organisations and society in general, turn to leaders for guidance and direction in volatile and uncertain times. Under rapidly changing conditions, the authors suggest, leaders must be transparent, genuine, reliable, and trustworthy, and display congruence between their espoused values, actions, and behaviours.
The authors define Authentic Leadership as follows;
Specifically, we define authentic leadership in organisations as a process that draws from both positive psychological capacities and a highly developed organizational context, which results in both greater self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviours on the part of leaders and associates, fostering positive self-development. The authentic leader is confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, transparent, moral/ethical, future-oriented, and gives priority to developing associates to be leaders. The authentic leader is true to him/herself and the exhibited behaviour positively transforms or develops associates into leaders themselves. The authentic leader does not try to coerce or even rationally persuade associates, but rather the leader’s authentic values, beliefs, and behaviours serve to model the development of associates.
How To Develop Authentic Leadership
Research shows that the key aspects of developing authentic leadership come from the individual’s personal history and key events in their past. Family life, role models, early life challenges, education, and work experience all contribute to forming the leader’s personality and worldview. Both Gardnerand Collins point towards the impact of dramatic life events in facilitating personal growth and development. Gardner suggests that these components serve as catalysts for heightened self-awareness and the ability to self-reflect.
In certain respects, it seems that the conditions required for authentic leadership cannot be manufactured at will or even acquired through leadership training. Instead, they seem to be the consequence of living a certain kind of life. Authentic leadership doesn’t come in a packet on the supermarket shelf ready-made for use. The self-awareness required for authentic leadership comes from a willingness to address one’s shortcomings, reflect critically on our decisions, test our own hypothesis of life and analyse our self-schema. The leadership skills required for successful operation in a dramatically changing environment come from learning who we are fundamentally and connecting to our intrinsic core self.
The centrality of the entrepreneurial image is born from the idea that we must prove ourselves to the world. It says, “look at me, I am important, I exist, I am real, take notice of me.” As it is when we stare in the mirror, the image must be reflected back to us; otherwise, we cease to exist. And so, everything the ego-based self does in the world is an effort to reinforce its legitimacy, vitality, and value further. What it really reflects is a fundamental character structure weakness. For this to change, that thin image must be destroyed, leaving space for the true self to emerge. This is what both Collins and Gardner suggest when referring to the impact of dramatic life events.
I am hopeful that things are changing for the better rather than changing to more of the same. That we can move towards a system of living and working that comes from a more authentic self rather than the inauthentic self that currently dominates. Given the destructive nature of the capitalist system and our ever-heightening need for short-term gratification, failing to do so will surely mean the end of this version of the human race. Authentic leadership is imperative not only for business success but for the survival of all life on the planet. I don’t think that is an exaggeration.
Thanks for taking the time to read this week’s Sunday Letters. If you enjoyed this article, consider becoming a supporter.
Pavlov, P. I. (2010). Conditioned reflexes: an investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Annals of neurosciences, 17(3), 136.
Kodish, S. (2006). The paradoxes of leadership: The contribution of Aristotle. Leadership, 2(4), 451-468.
Maccoby, M. (2000). Narcissistic leaders. Harvard business review, 78(1), 69-77.
Buber, M. (1988). Knowledge of man.
Collins, J. (2009). Good to Great-(Why some companies make the leap and others don’t).
Quigley, T. J., Crossland, C., & Campbell, R. J. (2017). Shareholder perceptions of the changing impact of CEOs: Market reactions to unexpected CEO deaths, 1950–2009. Strategic Management Journal, 38(4), 939-949.
Strine Jr, L. E. (2012). Our continuing struggle with the idea that for-profit corporations seek profit. Wake Forest L. Rev., 47, 135.
Gardner, W. L., Avolio, B. J., Luthans, F., May, D. R., & Walumbwa, F. (2005). “Can you see the real me?” A self-based model of authentic leader and follower development. The leadership quarterly, 16(3), 343-372.