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What authentic leadership is – and what it’s not

(Below is a reprint of Nihar’s post on LinkedIn Pulse entitled:  “The problem with personal leadership narratives.”)

From the testy Presidential debates and Trump’s polarizing statements to the recent questioning of Ben Carson’s life story, no shortage of controversy exists in the race for America’s top executive job.

With an executive coaching lens, I watch how candidates present themselves to the people they hope to one day lead. For people on both sides of the aisle, Carson’s approach in particular has been of interest.

It’s unprecedented to see a candidate work so hard to defend that he almost killed a friend, tried to strike his mother with a hammer and injured other people with rocks and locks.

But Carson’s chosen narrative of redemption through his faith is vital to his demonstration of leadership potential, at least among his base of support.

Evangelical voters resonate with the miracle of such a soft-spoken man – and a doctor who saved lives no less – having destructive anger removed by a religious calling. Would they still follow him if the miracle hadn’t been true?

And this is why his strategy depends on both an insistence that he used to be violent and a consistent demonstration that he is now so calm that the contrast with past anger is undeniable. Like so many leaders in the corporate world, his credibility as a change agent relies on the quality of his fixed narrative.


The Illusion of Authentic Leadership

As more people questioned his fixed narrative, Carson engaged in several contentious interviews that increasingly showed a different side to him.

He insisted there was a hidden agenda behind the scrutiny and that others had never been vetted the same way. He chose to respond with an offensive rather than defensive strategy.

In an effort to preserve his control of the narrative, the soft-spoken Carson seemed to actually become angry. How ironic that in seeking to prove he “used” to be an angry person, he was slowly counteracting this point.

But his temperament wasn’t really the problem. Carson is probably aware of the double standard, where assertiveness among leaders of color (and women) is often unfairly characterized as “anger.” So despite his views being anything but moderate, he stays consistently moderate in temper.

The real challenge for Carson, and the reason why he is so open to scrutiny, is his insistence on a fixed personal narrative to prove his authenticity. Leaders resent the insinuation that they may not be authentic, yet in holding onto a fixed narrative, they simply can’t be.


Truly Authentic Leaders Challenge the Fixed Narrative

The Arbinger Institute, in its book Leadership and Self-Deception refers to leaders as “in the box” when they see others as the source of their problem.

These leaders view the world around them as objects used to help them reinforce their inflated self-perception, not as people with their own aspirations. So when their leadership is challenged, they go “in the box” and blame others.

An “in the box” style may feel authentic to a leader. He may say, “this is who I am, and I own it. Take it or leave it.”

But such an approach does nothing to authentically honor the people being led.

Truly authentic leaders have the courage to challenge the fixed narrative because they know honoring the value of those being led sometimes demands it. They seek out ways to inspire, not attack people that don’t agree with them. This is called getting “outside the box.”

Attacking the media, from judging debate questions to deflecting quotes of past statements candidates themselves made, is an “in the box” strategy. It reinforces their belief that the game of leadership revolves around what they want to say, not the questions held by the people they will lead.

Of course, “in-the-box” leaders aren’t without their followers. People admire self-assured leaders like Trump, Carson and others for their sheer audacity to say whatever they want, even when it’s not clear their promises will actually help them.

Candidates that hold onto their fixed narrative may seem authentic to those who are in the box with them. But after primary season and after possibly winning the office, leaders come to realize that their real impact depends on inspiring those who don’t agree with them.


What “Outside the Box” Looks Like

Politicians in elections and business executives reporting quarterly results have something in common: they time their messages appropriately for key audiences.

During the primaries, choosing to authentically connect with Americans who don’t resonate with a candidate’s fixed narrative is not smart political strategy. Their authenticity among those who do agree with them is all that matters.  And they attack anyone who questions it.

This is why candidates preserve their narrative by attacking the media. But even this rivalry is not authentic.

As much as candidates rail against the scrutiny, their survival depends on the oxygen of airtime. Carson himself confirmed this at the height of media scrutiny when he sarcastically thanked the “biased media” for the donations he received over his week of news.

Which is why even the media was surprised to see amidst the Carson news, a video of Chris Christie’s remarks about the struggle of addiction unexpectedly go viral. Using powerful storytelling and a perspective rarely shared among conservatives, he achieved more of an authentic connection than any staged interview could.

Christie is not without his flaws. He is famous for his own angry outbursts in press conferences. But when he went against his own fixed narrative, or what he was “supposed” to believe, something real took place – to the tune of over 7 million views.

In these few minutes he transcended the bickering to get “outside the box.” The result provided a lesson for all leaders, regardless of political aisle or business industry. It was that people engage with authenticity, not deference to a fixed personal narrative.

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