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  • Writer's pictureDr Pete Stebbins PhD

Authentically Faking It: The Paradox of School Leadership

Paradox (n) a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that may be true...

Authentic Leadership: Worshipping The Sacred Cow...

Stunned in disbelief Daniel hung up the phone. He’d just received his post interview feedback after being unsuccessful for the permanent Principal role at the school he had been Acting Principal in for the last two years (and been Deputy Principal at the same school for many years). During the last two years Daniel had built a very capable leadership team and oversaw massive improvements in attendance, behaviour and reading as well as winning national awards for their literacy program. 

But that was not enough to gain the permanent position as Principal. The role was given to another candidate who, whilst being similar in terms of experience but not as strong on results, had been deemed by the interview panel the preferred candidate because they showed a markedly higher level of ‘authentic leadership’ during the interview.

Naturally Daniel was puzzled by the feedback and uncertain about what exactly authentic leadership was (and therefore what it was he apparently lacked) so he did a quick google search and found the following definition on Wikipedia: 

‘Authentic leadership is an approach to leadership that emphasises building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers which value their input and are built on an ethical foundation. Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness.’

Reading this definition made Daniel more perplexed and confused. How could an interview panel, who did not know him, decide on the ‘honesty of his relationships with staff?’ How could the panel in one single interview determine the ‘ethics of his leadership’? How could an interview panel determine he was not as ‘positive, truthful or open’ in his relationships compared to the other candidate? Daniel knew he had genuine positive relationships with his staff, Daniel placed a premium on ethical behaviour and was very conscious of being positive, truthful and open at all times. Why was he being comparatively marked down on 'authentic leadership' in his job interview?

Confused, he rang back the reviewer who had given him the feedback and after explaining his concerns he was simply told he seemed more quiet, nervous and uncertain in his responses compared to the successful candidate.

Daniel responded to this by saying:  'I openly acknowledged to the panel that I’m quite introverted and that I was finding the interview environment very difficult compared to my normal school environment......So, if I’m hearing you right, is what you’re saying that if I’m not outwardly confident and extraverted and/or feeling nervous or uncertain then I am not being authentic?'

The reviewer replied somewhat uncertainly before suddenly becoming dismissive and abrupt ‘Well um (pause) look my job is to give you feedback and if you don’t wish to take it onboard that’s your prerogative – I don’t think it is beneficial to discuss this any further at this time!’

Sacred Cow (n)  A belief, custom, or institution which people treat with too

much respect and are afraid to criticize or question it.

The reviewer hung up leaving Daniel less confused but now deeply concerned that he had been unfairly disadvantaged based on his introverted personality and normal level of interview anxiety. The victim of bias. Daniel believed the interview panel did not evaluate his ability to be an authentic school leader per se, but rather had a negative bias towards his introversion and his self-acknowledged, yet understandable nervousness which they had cloaked in trendy buzz words to tell him he was comparatively lacking ‘authentic leadership’...

The most difficult aspect of this encounter for Daniel was that as far as he could understand it – he was an ‘authentic leader’ in every sense of the definition. Furthermore, if he attempted to be a raving extravert during the interview (contra to his true personality style) and tried to be more boisterous and confident in answering questions he knew within himself he would be ‘faking it’ – yet this appeared to be exactly what the interview panel expected…

The BIG Problem with ‘Authentic Leadership’

Let’s just be clear about what happened before we unpack what we can learn: (1) Daniel was being 100% of his true ‘authentic leader’ self during his job interview and the opinion of the reviewers that he was not being authentic is unfounded and shows negative bias (and a complete misunderstanding of what authenticity is really about); (2) Authentic leadership is not about (a) personality types or (b) showing a false degree of outward confidence – yet all too often people are subjected to the negative bias of others (i.e., accused of being inauthentic) when they are simply introverted and/or struggling in artificial situations unrelated to the actual environment they work in; and (3) Authenticity is an important aspect of leadership but can be misunderstood and misused by people in power far too often.

Leadership & Living Outside Your Comfort Zone

“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Comfort zones are places where it is easy and natural to be yourself and behave with unconscious competence. To become an extraordinary school leader, you need to purposefully live outside your comfort zone – living in the learning zone of conscious incompetence – where you will experience the stress and frustration of learning new leadership behaviours.  

Breaking the habits of old leadership behaviours to embrace new leadership behaviours will feel awkward at times and you will not necessarily ‘get it right’ in front of your staff. Sometimes it may look like ‘you are faking it’ (and indeed sometimes you will be) just like anyone learning a new skill does. Whilst this is all part of a natural learning curve you will not look or feel ‘authentic’ in the eyes of your staff and it will be important to openly acknowledge this with them as you grow.

Authenticity: An Attitude or Behaviour?

‘Authenticity’ can be a confusing concept in leadership development. At its core, Brene Brown tells us that authenticity simply means ‘embracing who we are and letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be’. It is important to note this is NOT an invitation to shrink back from our responsibility as leaders to grow and change. As leaders we are responsible for adapting our leadership to meet the needs of others. Consider the following quote from Seth Godin:

“If you need to be ‘authentic’ to do your best work, you’re not a professional, you’re a fortunate amateur. Fortunate, because you have a gig where the person you feel like being in the moment actually helps you move forward. For the rest of us, there’s the opportunity to be professional, to exert emotional labour in search of empathy – the empathy to imagine what someone else would want... what might resonate with them.”

For Seth Godin, authenticity is problematic if it relates to the OUTWARD BEHAVIOURS of ‘being who you are in the moment – your true self’ as you can only behave in ways where you feel truly confident – unconsciously competent. But if, as Brene Brown suggests, ‘Authencity’ relates to INWARD ATTITUDE of ‘embracing who we are and letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be’ than Authenticity is an invitation to simply accept our imperfections, to persevere with our conscious incompetence, to accept our struggles as we make the necessary changes to improve our leadership behaviours.

How to Authentically Fake It (‘Til We Make It)

If we ‘authentically’ accept who we are whilst we ‘fake it ‘til we make it’ then we are able to grow and change – accepting the awkwardness of learning new leadership behaviours and openly declaring to ourselves and others around us ‘this is difficult for me’ or ‘I’m trying to take a different approach to how I lead on this issue’ or any other open and honest disclosure whilst we persevere with our leadership growth. This enables the person / people we are communicating with to immediately recognise our ‘awkwardness’ not as false or disingenuous behaviour but rather simply a novice on the long and difficult road to becoming an expert. This creates a healthy vulnerability in the relationship and builds empathy and openness – ‘going first’ in acknowledging the struggles of professional growth and development. 

It also allows us to embrace our imperfections, to not expect ourselves to be ‘instantly perfect’ and give ourselves permission to keep trying, to persevere and to make mistakes on the road to extraordinary leadership. We are able to avoid the all too common curse of magical thinking so prevalent in many leaders’ minds where we’re supposed to be perfect and get things right the first time. As Brene Brown tells us: ‘Magical thinking is incredibly dangerous and will cost you more time and money than ‘digging deep’ ever will… The real work is the constant iteration, incorporating feedback, troubleshooting, figuring out when to push and when to pull and helping everyone reset after a setback and learn.’

Authentic Leadership: Bringing It All Together

Now that we have a deeper understanding of authentic leadership – what it is and what it is not – how does someone like Daniel move forwards from here? For Daniel, the learning in this case is not about any obvious deficit in his school leadership per se, but rather how to improve his interview performance and more effectively manage upwards when dealing with the now known preferences and stereotypes of what his superiors believe constitutes preferred interview behaviour for school leadership candidates. Whilst this challenge may seem unfair and unrelated to his real world, it is nonetheless a necessary obstacle he must grow to overcome on his own larger leadership journey. And when he is promoted to a higher position of authority, he can influence and positively change how 'authentic leadership' is understood and used to select new principals - turning a negative experience into a positive lasting legacy for future school leaders….

Onwards and Upwards!

Dr Pete Stebbins PhD

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