Management buzzwords to hate, pt.96: “authentic”

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The most irritating words used by management gurus and pundits on management are those which replace existing words that do the job already and those which obfuscate and mislead. There are many such words but the one that currently irritates me particularly is “authentic” when yoked to the word leadership.

I’ve lost track of the number of articles pushing authentic leadership. What they seem to mean is honest leadership. Or leaders who have ethical goals. Or people whose motivation is based on something more worthy than just maximising shareholder value. All fine, but why not say so?

The Financial Times today has a justly sceptical article about the concept. It quotes some alleged management gurus who have this remarkable advice: “Whenever someone picks up on a lack of consistency in what you say or how you say it, it triggers a sense of distrust and a gut feeling that you’re not being straight.” I’m sure these authors have degrees in psychology to back up their insight. Actually I’m not – psychology graduates are held to a higher standard of argument.

It gets worse when PhD students discuss authentic leadership as a criterion of corporate success as if they’ve discovered something new. I don’t think there is much new in the world of leadership and management and this certainly is not. But unfortunately scarce resources will be spent on surveys that ask ordinary and baffled people whether they think such and such a leader is “authentic”. Strictly speaking, the opposite of authentic is fake. So the question would be better put as, do you think [insert political or corporate leader] is a fake? Or, in US parlance, a phony?

Putting it that way shows that this is an age-old question, and the word authentic adds nothing to the academic or practical discussion of leadership.

The American comedian George Burns (*) told us most of what we need to know about this: “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

(*) The quotation is also attributed variously to Groucho Marx and Sam Goldwyn

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