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An excerpt from Chapter 6 of Bob Terry's book Authentic Leadership: Courage In Action in which he defines the meanings of both "authentic leadership" and "authenticity." 

Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action (Jossey Bass Public Administration Series)

Leadership is a subset of action. But not all action is authentic leadership. Leadership is authentic action, a unique and honorific mode of engagement in life. In this chapter I will define authenticity and explore its particular relevance for our times. Once I have linked action and authenticity, subsequent chapters will set the stage for a seventh view of leadership that will make this theory of leadership truly comprehensive.

Authentic Leadership defined: Authenticity is knowing, and acting on, what is true and real inside yourself, your team and your organization AND knowing and acting on what is true and real in the world. It is not enough to walk one's talk if one is headed off, or leading one's organization, community or nation, off a cliff! ~Bob Terry

Bob Terry

Authenticity defined: Authenticity, like any category of thought, carries with it historical baggage. The term's original meaning and multiple contemporary interpretations both limit and provide the foundation for my definition.

The word authentic derives originally from Greek sources meaning one who accomplishes. To be authentic is to act, to embody and to participate in life. Webster's New International Unabridged Dictionary defines authenticity as "fidelity, actuality and fact, compatibility with a certain source or origin, accordance with usage or tradition, a complete sincerity without feigning or hypocrisy." However, this dictionary definition does not reveal all the word's philosophical complexity.

Mike Martin (1986) presents more of authenticity's connotations when he describes what he labels the Authenticity Tradition. In this tradition, "authenticity is defined in terms of avoiding self-deception. This emphasis leads to intensified criticism of virtually all self-deception—not just self-deception about wrong doing—as cowardly and dishonest…Existentialists, who represent the main current in the Authenticity Tradition, are preoccupied with the process of decision making. Their concern is not so much with what choices are made as with how they are made. Decisions, they insist, must be made in a fully honest way, based on a courageous willingness to acknowledge the significant features of the human condition, of one's immediate situation, and of one's personal responses" (p. 53).

One of these existentialists is Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre clarified his understanding of authenticity by contrasting it with sincerity, a contrast that both Martin and I also find illuminating. In daily speech, sincerity and authenticity are often used interchangeably. Connotations of single-mindedness, moral purity, the avoidance of unjustified deceit and openness (Martin, 1986, p. 70) can accompany either term. But a close look at both words reveals helpful distinctions in their connotations. Martin points out that sincerity "rules out unwarranted dissimulation, intentional deception, hypocrisy, duplicity, bad-faith commitments, and double-mindedness. Frequently it retains the positive connotation of purity derived from its Latin word sincerus, which means unadulterated. Talk about sincerity usually presupposes some positive standard for good motives, intentions or attitudes against which insincerity is condemned" (p. 68).

Promises are insincere if the person making them intends to renege. Hidden agendas also reflect insincerity of motive. In addition, Martin observes that "usually only desirable types of motives are called sincere or insincere." Both sincere love and insincere love sound possible, whereas sincere jealousy sounds redundant and insincere jealousy sounds contradictory.

In contrast, says Martin, authenticity "is captured by the idea of genuineness rather than purity. The authentic is the bona fide (insurance policy), real (Chinese tapestry), official (commemorative stamp), or authoritative (executive order), as opposed to the fake, imitative, unofficial or unauthorized…An authentic compliment is one that succeeds in praising someone, in contrast to a sincere compliment, which need only be intended to express feelings of admiration" (p. 69).

In addition to distinguishing genuineness and purity, Martin distinguishes the internal consistency, or congruence, that accompanies authenticity from that which accompanies sincerity. While consistency is a part of authenticity, it fails to comprehend the full experience of authenticity. Sincerity, however, can be viewed as an unmitigated consistency that limits a full exploration of self and world. Instead of asking what is really going on it says, be true to yourself, ignoring that the self may be unreflective, insensitive or destructive.

Martin provides an example from art history: "Rousseau and some other romantics viewed sincere artists as those who accurately revealed and expressed what they felt. In practice, this often inspired narcissism and exhibitionist displays of the sordid aspects of life neglected by conventional artists…[The] ideal of sincerity with oneself [as] congruence…allows that the motives for the congruence may have little to do with striving for significant truths or an honest understanding of one's present attributes" (p. 71).

Thus sincerity treats the self as limitation. Authenticity, while rooted in the limit and possibility of existence, moves around on the Action Wheel and expands possibilities. "A free consciousness, says Martin, "assures that we are always more than our present attributes, for to be conscious of them is to transcend them…by freely giving them a meaning or by initiating actions to modify them" (p. 71).

Because we are self-conscious, we are never totally reducible to inherited traits, although a person who demands sincerity of others may wish to make it seem that the others are locked into a historical legacy. Martin's example of "outing" makes the same point: "To insist that the person who deceives himself about his homosexuality openly acknowledge it…may well be an attempt to degrade the person. The champion of sincerity views the homosexual as a thing whose homosexuality is a determined destiny rather than a free sexual response. The confession is demanded in order to [remove, as Sartre says], ‘a disturbing freedom from a trait.' The freedom is disturbing, in part because it raises our anxiety about ourselves being free and in part because its recognition would reveal our kinship as free beings" (p. 72).

~Bob Terry, Authentic Leadership: Courage In Action, excerpt from Chapter 6


The Promise of Authenticity

Given September 11, Enron, WorldCom and the other endless expressions of evil and tragedy, what does leadership look like? Issues of ultimate trust, hope, courage, faith surface when confronted by fear, despair, horror and life that makes no sense.

This world is not fixable. Leadership stands with people in empathy rather than trying to fix the unfixable. It also faces feelings inside oneself and outside in the world. It takes courage to live here. Courage involves taking risks toward a virtuous goal with no guaranteed outcome. It is feeling driven.

What does it take to create safe places at work for deep inquiry and reflection? Some people are nervous that spirituality is a code word for religion. My worry is that spirituality is a throwaway term since it is so vaguely used with no foundation. Too post modern for me.

What I have learned is to raise the deeper questions. What is behind what is going on? What is ultimately worthy of trust? Being a skeptic, I have always been a fool. My inquiry into leadership opened another window and door. My foundation of life is captured in one word—authenticity.

Authenticity goes beyond P-P-O (Personal, Professional and Organizational arenas). Given the current crises I have added C-N-G. (Community, National and Global). Connections are getting more apparent and real.

You have heard the slogan 'No Man is an Island' which was to make the point about us all being connected. However, the metaphor is wrong. We are all islands—unique outcroppings from a common land base.

One of the hardest aspects of life and leadership to understand and embrace is paradox. Polarities like part/whole, same/different, dynamic/form can be managed. (See Polarity Management, Johnson, 1997). Paradoxes cannot be managed. They grab you and rip you apart and are profoundly true and real. Good, evil, truth/lies, authenticity/inauthenticity. Part of leadership wisdom invites and pushes leaders to face deep paradoxes in life.

So what is worthy of trust and the foundation for hope and courage? In what is leadership grounded?

Leadership is grounded in, and lives, the promise. What is the promise? The promise is that authenticity will prevail. Deep truth will emerge and living the promise of authenticity supports trust, sets the foundation for hope and triggers courage to release authenticity when we are trapped by inauthenticity.

~Bob Terry, On Being A Secular Theologian, 2001, unpublished manuscript

Leadership is the ability to make wise adept choices, both singularly and collectively, by persons who courageously serve the welcoming promise of authenticity. ~Bob Terry

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