by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“To become authentic, each of us has to develop our own leadership style, consistent with our personality and character.”

~ Bill George

In Part 1 of our “Authentic Leadership” series, we outlined the meaning of authentic leadership and contrasted it with counterfeit leadership, while in Part 2, we pondered over the question of “Why authentic leadership?” and inferred that where authentic leadership is concerned, substance trumps style.

Here in Part 3, we proceed to explore how we can cultivate authentic leadership without turning ourselves into somebody that we are not.

Professor Bill George of Harvard Business School, author of the book, Authentic Leadership, reminds us that our leadership style has to be consistent with our personality and character. Unfortunately organizational pressures compel us to conform to normative styles. But conformity achieves a totally opposite result – if your leadership style is not consistent with whoever you truly are in the first place, you will never become an authentic leader after all!

How can there be authenticity in an imitation, a replica or a counterfeit of the original success? You can learn from other people’s experiences, but true success is not achieved by not being you. Being a pretentious version of someone else robs you of your authenticity; consequently people don’t feel inclined to trust who you are or respect what you stand for.

You could be an introvert who admires John F. Kennedy for his exceptional communication skills, but there is no real value for you to replicate his magnetic persona. It is far better to be an excellent version of a not-so-great you rather than an artificial version of a super-great someone else.

“Being a pretentious version of someone else robs you of your authenticity. It is far better to be an excellent version of a not-so-great you rather than an artificial version of a super-great someone else.”

~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

How does being authentic translate into personal and organizational success? Within the brief scope of this article, I will highlight three points where consistency trumps conformity in authentic leadership.

#1: Consistency strengthens, conformity suppresses

TyresPractising a leadership approach that is consistent with your personality and character is akin to aligning the wheels of your vehicle. The right alignment increases the performance and lifespan of the wheels that keep you going through all types of terrain – no matter how challenging – with full confidence. On the contrary, non-alignment will cause a lack of balance and ultimately long-term damage that can result in irreversible adverse consequences.

Have you ever wondered why some obviously competent leaders unexpectedly perform below par in their organizations?

Most likely, these leaders find that the values espoused by the organization are not fully consistent with their personal core values, so initially they attempt to conform in order to keep the peace. But as the daily impact of non-alignment gradually wears them down, they lose their leadership balance and their true capability becomes increasingly suppressed. In such a situation, the frustrated leaders must decide whether they wish to continue in this manner or leave the organization.

#2: Consistency is central, not peripheral

Core of earthThe attribute of being consistent is central to authentic leadership. Consistency is not a peripheral attribute like a covering that can mask your true motives and character. Your consistency – or lack thereof – will eventually reveal itself even through the thickest facade.

Unfortunately, many leaders put on an outward front to conform to what is politically correct in the interest of self-preservation. They sway according to the tune that their powerful political masters play, regardless of ethics or integrity.

On the other hand, authentic leaders are not afraid to stand up for what is consistent with their core beliefs and values. The core is permanent but the covering is temporary, so if you want to spot an authentic leader, just observe how he or she responds when faced with a conflict of core principles.

“Your consistency – or lack thereof – will eventually reveal itself even through the thickest facade.”

~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

#3: Consistency is flexible, not fickle

Bend backwardsWhile I uphold the virtues of consistency, I am not advocating that we become impossibly rigid and uncompromising. There are valid circumstances where we need to be flexible; for instance, we could have received new information about a critical success factor that we had inadvertently missed due to our finite knowledge and experience, or crucial changes beyond our control might have arisen.

Nevertheless, flexibility is not to be confused with fickle-mindedness. Fickle leaders are indecisive because they lack a firm stance on the matter. The inconsistency of their decision making is reflective of the inconsistency within their selves. In contrast, authentic leaders know how far they can be flexible without sacrificing their principles.

Caveat: What is the basis of your consistency?

It is only appropriate that I conclude our discussion with a pertinent caveat: the basis of the leader’s consistency. What if the leader is consistent to values that are based on warped ideals?

Yes, the entire bottom of authentic leadership falls out if the leader holds on to core values that are far from honourable. When the latter happens on an extreme scale, don’t be surprised to cross paths with a consistently evil leader reminiscent of Nero, Hitler or Stalin!

One of the ways of identifying an original Louis Vuitton Monogram Canvas purse is to check the bottom. If the purse has a base or bottom that has been sewn on, then you have cause for concern because authentic Louis Vuitton purses are made from a single, unbroken piece of leather canvas. In the same way, others can observe whether your leadership base is consistent with the marks of authenticity. Basically, the bottom line of authentic leadership is the base where it all starts from.


Photo credit

Image 1 courtesy of Salvatore Vuono

Image 2 courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti

Image 3 courtesy of Petr Kratochvil