The Value of Authenticity

June 25, 2010 · by Louis L. Marines

Common businesses practices such as performance appraisals reinforce the cultural standard to conform rather than differ. But conformity is not what leaders are made of.

A large cottage industry of book authors, polling firms, survey designers and publishers, consultants, and coaches has grown up around our industry’s escalating need to know what others think of us. In this, we reject the philosopher Eric Hoffer’s sage counsel, “It is not good for our efforts at self-realization to know the opinions other people have of us. It is difficult or perhaps impossible to be ourselves if we are known.”

We don’t want to be self-realized as much as we want to be selected, retained, promoted, rewarded, and liked … preferably well-liked. To this end, we not only want to know what our clients, prospects, peers, business partners, subordinates, and supervisors think of us already, but we also want to know what they’d like to think of us so we can conform to their expectations.

Most adults have already attained this chameleon-like facility. Our parents and teachers usually made it very clear what we would need to be and do to earn their approval: genteel behavior, good grades, and fastidious hygiene are prime earners of love points. I even had a teacher who asked students to sign a “Code of Conduct” that dictated not only what it meant to be a gentleman in his classroom but also our smoking and sexual behaviors until we came of age, an event that seemed impossibly remote at the time.

At business school in the 1960s, I discovered a form of social experimentation that didn’t involve flower power, tie-dyed clothes, or exotic smoking materials. We sat around in “T-groups” to tell each other, through unbridled and unedited critique, what we thought of each other. That experience cured me. From then on I vowed to be obscure about who I was and to carefully conduct myself as others expected.

Fortunately, an early mentor warned me of the consequences of not living and acting authentically. It is tough to be worthy of trust or to lead effectively without being authentic. That lesson was hard learned and is often hard to retain; I still have to be reminded periodically, which may result from my choice of vocation as teacher, coach, and mentor. Lynn Freed writes of the “teacher’s trap — the trap of wanting to be liked,” though teachers aren’t the only ones who are vulnerable.

At several watersheds in my life I’ve had to re-learn that trust is a function of authenticity. The 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries portrays Che Guevara’s road trip and rite of passage to maturity. In one scene, a gracious host asks Guevara’s opinion of a book the host has written. Guevara says it is unreadable. His host is stunned, then smiles: “Thanks for being the only one to tell me the truth!”

The truth for most of us is that we are not and are never going to be a Jim Collins “level five” leader. But that is only one of the popular and largely unreachable role models we are encouraged to emulate. (See also Iacocca, Welch, Lincoln, Jesus.) Not only can we not be them, we’ve got to work like hell just to be us. A folk story makes this point. A dying Rabbi worries that at heaven’s gate he will be judged poorly for not being more like Moses. He is told, “No, rabbi, the judgment will be about why you were not more like you!”

Every day we are inundated by feedback intended to channel us in one direction or another: multi-rater assessments, performance appraisals, job ratings, marketing messages for weight loss, hair restoration, and exotic cars to burnish our public images, “Hearts on Fire” diamonds to re-kindle our love interests, and client surveys to make sure our branding efforts emphasize the differentiating competitive advantage our clients demand from us. Under all this pressure, it’s easy to forget who we are, what we want, what our unique gifts are, and how we wish to express them through what we do.

Acolytes often asked Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman what they should research, what great problem they should study. He told them to study and work on what they were passionate about.

Lynne Freed also captures the challenge, in this instance about writing: “The writer must be in love with language, with the words themselves, the sounds of the words on the page, the music they make in meaning. He must love them not so much in order to express the self as to discover a self, and through it, his province, his territory.”

When I meet young architects, engineers, planners, and scientists, I usually see that same love, that sense of excitement about the discovery and ownership of a territory, their professional dominion. But 10 years later, when we make them project managers and then office managers, that fire goes out for some of them. What happens? I worry that we will do to them what we do to ourselves when we are confused and have lost our way.

We inundate them with feedback: client surveys about their performance as managers, 360-degree multi-rater assessments by people who would dictate who and how they should be. And we expect them both to dish out and take performance appraisals that seem designed to ensure across-the-board homogeneity.

While firms complain that clients treat them as undifferentiated commodities, the very feedback practices that firms adopted to boost excellence have, in fact, the opposite effect. We have confused wanting young professionals to improve their knowledge and skills with changing them as people. If each person is gifted with a unique set of talents, abilities, and potentials, then the only thing standardization can give us is a group of clones with skills carefully calibrated to the median.

You may recall Peter Drucker’s exhortation that we throw out performance appraisals as a useless surrogate for the helpful dialogues that need to happen daily in the workplace. Dialogues can be difficult because they take more energy and time.

Yet I have rarely met the young professional whose character, standards, and aspirations were lower than those of his or her clients or of the firm. When we invite them to start up the firm’s path to glory by managing projects, let us also advise them how to manage people. Even better, if we are serious about combating commoditization, let us teach them how to help themselves, the people working for them, and their clients self-realize.

If we allow the pundits, gurus, pollsters, and test-givers to tell us who and what we need to be, how to act, and how to present ourselves, the world needs only one of us, mechanically duplicated to fit demand.

It is time to end the search outside ourselves for the approval only we can give ourselves, acting with courage and conviction to be the only person, the only firm — given our unique character — that each of us can uniquely be.


Excerpted with permission from The Language of Leadership: Stories and Studies in Courage, Wisdom, and Sacrifice, Greenway Communications, www.di.net/store.


Louis L. Marines is the founder of the Advanced Management Institute for Architecture and Engineering (AMI, a business unit of FMI Corp.). He is a widely respected authority on leadership development in the architecture/engineering/construction industry.

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