Inauthentic Leadership & The Centrality of Images
For many, short-term success and its perception is more important than sustainability, and the welfare of our fellow human beings and the planet. It is perhaps a fake plastic, destructive self-image.
Welcome to the penultimate essay in the Sunday Letters Leadership Series. Over the course of the series, I have brought you thoughts on the paradox of success, Machiavellianism, inauthentic leadership, and this week I’m taking a look at the centrality of the entrepreneurial image. These essays previously lived on The Lead, a publication I started on a whim a few months ago that is now moving here, with some edits, to Sunday Letters. I hope you’ll enjoy these essays and the perspectives they represent. They are, in large part, my personal philosophy on how to live and work successfully with others while holding true to values that align with our sense of humanity.
We occupy a period in the development of humanity where little holds more importance to us than how we are perceived. It is the image we present through our words, physical appearance, and behaviour that tells the world who we are and what we stand for. It moulds and shapes our self-concept and worldview. In that sense, the world in all its beauty and depravity is a mirror of 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. Who and what you portray, in large part, dictates your success in the field.
Consider our western consumer culture, for example. Everywhere we look, advertisements are vying for our attention and our 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 terms1, 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 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 sorts of measures of success. If you want something, as the explicit message goes, you must go out there and get it. However, these ideals, these 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 of the self.
In leadership, too, this imperative towards the centrality of the image is dominant. Many scholars insist that our addiction to the pursuit of the image is indicative of a broader social ill with detrimental consequences for human relations2. 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 McCoby, who says, for example, that the story of the contemporary business world is a story of narcissistic leaders on the hunt for power and glory3. For philosopher Michael Buber, it was a case of seeming rather than being, where seeming tends towards the false image and prevents genuine relationships4.
“All Sizzle And No Steak”
In many human relations, we find a gulf between what we say and what we do. We like to think we are altruistic and caring for the needs of others, for example. We paint that picture of ourselves because we like to think of ourselves in the best possible light and deny our darker side. But I wonder if the motivations are placed elsewhere. 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 making ourselves look better than we ordinarily would. 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? 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.”
And so 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 leadership5, where five years of research into the top-performing corporations in the Fortune 500 only returned 11 that transitioned from “good to great”. The researchers found that most corporations examined had sporadic periods of superior performance, whereas the 11 identified sustained their success over the long term. According to author of the study Jim Collins, this success was largely influenced by an authentic leadership style in those companies. It seems that grand visions and purpose statements positively influence innovation, achievement, and healthy organisational culture only if the accompanying action and behaviour are congruent6.
The centrality of the entrepreneurial image, that of 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 premise is, “will this strategic move make money, and how good will I look in the process?” However, there is a trade-off that is often discounted or not considered at all in this pursuit.
The Authentic Leader
The rock star entrepreneurial image is very attractive, but are the board room, joe public, and aspiring entrepreneurs investing too much in the centrality of this image to be healthy? Consider 2017 research by Quigley et al. that examined shareholder perception of CEO significance7. Their research found that investors believe CEOs have a substantial degree of influence on the share price. You might suggest, this is to be expected, what’s the problem? Well, perhaps it shouldn’t. If a larger than life CEO garners unsubstantiated trust from shareholders based on his or her personality, this can create a significant weak point. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather a modest but effective 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 leadership8. 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 to our attention. Not only does it mean the 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 Delaware Supreme Court, and Senior Fellow of Corporate Governance at Harvard Law School, Leo E. Strine Jr., had to say on the matter in 20129. [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-oriented leaders that dominate 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 Fred Luthens and Bruce Avolio10, 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, trustworthy, and display congruence between their espoused values, actions, and behaviours.
The authors define Authentic Leadership a 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 in 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 the leader's forming. Both Gardner and 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. Instead, they seem to be the consequence of living a certain 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, and 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 the 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.
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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).
Kanter, D. L., & Mirvis, P. H. (1989). The Cynical Americans: Living and working in an age of discontent and disillusion. Jossey-Bass.
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.
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.
Strine Jr, L. E. (2012). Our continuing struggle with the idea that for-profit corporations seek profit. Wake Forest L. Rev., 47, 135.
Luthans, F., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Authentic leadership development. Positive organizational scholarship, 241, 258.