Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Authenticity is an over-rated leadership attribute

Authenticity is not the attribute I seek most in a leader.

I want to follow leaders who are committed to the organization’s best interests ahead of their own, i.e. I am not prepared to assume that these two things (organization’s best interests and the leader’s authentic interests) are necessarily aligned.  Specifically, WIIFM must come second to WIIFO (what’s in it for the organization).

“Authentic leadership” presumes that the leader is a somewhat “perfect” person, that his or her passion and agenda is almost perfectly aligned with the organization’s strategy, and that, by radiating this combination, employers and other stakeholders will be inspired and engaged.

I would hope that all of us aspire to this. It is honorable. However, reality tends to be a messier place and I am a pragmatist. While we aspire to those noble goals, let’s not lose sight of the bar.

I realize that my own worldview is predicated on the larger assumption that when our organizations prosper, then our economies prosper, our communities prosper, and we all benefit. This comes down to the ability and willingness of those individuals who lead to commit to the higher bar of best interests of the organization.

I would rather that leaders commit to WIIFO first. If they can rally their authentic self to that, all the better, but it is secondary.

Do you see it differently?


Related Posts:

Creative Commons License
Change Whisperer by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I like you reasoning and, obviously go through the same pattern of thought with my own work.

Agreed that governance helps line things up (assuming those who came up with the rules had the right level of authenticity).

What messes up the whole equation is environment and culture.I have seen too many executives with a good dose of authenticity dragged down by their reporting structure (to the board say), by the culture that developed before they arrived and by others who are not so authentic (and likely very competitive).

My own smaller worldview is that people are people and people are good (which would make it easy to be authentic). The problem is that people certainly are people but that is not always good.

Those people make it very hard for the “authentics” to succeed.

Comment by ggitchell1

Hi Garrett. I always appreciate your perspective. You are right – I did leave our environment and culture – good points. And, I have to agree with “people are people and people are good (which would make it easy to be authentic). The problem is that people certainly are people but that is not always good.” I am less interested tho (maybe even allergic to) judging anybody else or their justifications or motives or even values (which seems to get a lot of air time these days) – the only level playing field IMHO can be what is in the best interests of the organization. I have a lot of time and energy to debate that, and I quite satisfied to defer to decision makers. I realize that may be naive given the very political nature of many organizations but that does not diminish its merit.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Hi Gail,
Garrett’s observation gave me a chuckle: “The problem is that people certainly are people but that is not always good.” It reminded me of the famous W.C Fields line “I love mankind, it’s just people I can’t stand.” And I’ve often felt that way myself about our human frailties.

The more I study leadership the more I wonder to what degree leaders simply reflect what is really going on with those being led (us). In their massive ongoing study, Leadership Challenge authors Kouzes and Posner found consistently (over 25 years and a broad demographic sample) that by far, the most cited quality people stated they required in order to willingly follow a leader was “honesty”.

And yet if that is true, (I believe it should be) how can we explain our current organizational leadership in business and government? Wall Street’s near catastrophic manipulation rooted in greed and WIIFM, sovereign defaults with austerity programs for most, while the elite of those countries continue to enjoy their WIIFM gains. Those people are in leadership positions, yet their honesty is questionable, so how did they get there; why are we still following them?

Something doesn’t jive here. Could it be that tacitly, we also hold a WIIFM attitude, and therefore accept or tolerate that behaviour in those we elect/work for? “I don’t mind if the CEO of Nortel walked away with $135 million, because the system will also let me get mine someday.” Could this attitude explain our societal apathy and tolerance that permits leaders like those we have today, to rise to their positions?

In the final analysis, reflection (thru vehicles like ChangeWhisperer!) and self-awareness will allow us to determine our own degree of authenticity, and if we’re dissatisfied, to improve it. If we each ensure that we ourselves place the interests of the organization ahead of our own, then we’re in a more authentic place to demand that same behaviour of our leaders. Who knows, we may even end up becoming that leader.

Comment by michael darmody

Hello Michael! Welcome and thank you for your insightful comments.

What I find most interesting about elevating honesty is that I suspect it is actually a desire for something else: predictability. When we say we want a leader to be honest we don’t generally just mean “tell the truth” we also mean “tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – so, why? Perhaps because what we really want is to know ‘what to expect’ – because that knowledge gives us predictability and a sense of control. However honesty only gets us part of the way to nirvana – even if a leader is honest with us this doesn’t mean that they have the other skills and capability to navigate successfully.
The more I continue to think about authentic I think what we really mean to say is: “I want you to be authentically: smart, strategic, charismatic, etc etc [i.e. insert list of important leadership values and attributes here]. One could add honest to the list.

Really appreciated reading your thoughts – you got me thinking again. And I see that since we last chatted you have gotten onto Twitter (darmody1) and are writing your own blog ( – congrats. I am following you and have subscribed – looking forward to reading more.

Comment by Gail Severini ©


I completely agree that authentic is being true to the business. Allow me to speak specifically to HR leadership since so much focus is on CEOs. How HR leads this critical function that affects culture, engagement, productivity, pay and rewards – just about everything that affects every employee – is the heart of the company.

First a preface. I love HR. I, however, prefer to behave and represent what we are truly charged to do.

I prefer diplomacy, respect and directness as a mode of behavior. However, there are too much saccharine HR. Like the word implies it is synthetic sweet. The very demeanor of saccharine HR is to betray all confidences and encourages processes and systems that is inauthentic – gotcha management.

Lawyers and businessmen are not asked to be sweet but it’s somehow considered important to HR professionals when do so much the same kind of work. I expect my HR professionals to be straightforward and honorable. If I want saccharine I’ll get a can of Diet Coke.

Comment by Helene

Love it, Helene! I cannot speak to HR specifically but I will say that I agree overall.

I think most of us – as employees, consultants, customers – just really want to know where we stand. We don’t expect to always love the answer but we believe we are entitled to hear it – I only want saccharine in my coffee.

Thanks for taking the time to comment – I always appreciate your insights.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

An excellent article from Dr. Ginny Whitelaw posted on Linked2Leadership “Why We Fake Authentic Leadership and How to Stop”

She talks about the power of the ego to sabotage our greatest desires and the simplest, most effective ways of immobilizing the ego.

The revelations that we are all motivated by our personal agendas and fears is fundamental and yet elusive.

Leaders, great leaders, leaders who we follow, find a way to rise above these―not by wrestling with them rather by letting them go … and realizing that in this moment we have trained enough, we have analysed enough … we are enough.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Gail – great thoughts and appreciate you challenging traditional thought on “Authenticity”. We’ve shared some thoughts on my post The Authenticity Army at, but wanted to share with you here as well.

I appreciate the view on WIIFM and WIIFO, but I think you may have missed an option which is WIIFU (What’s In It For US). Too often we think of things in a win/lose or black/white way – we start from a position of thinking about myself or thinking selflessly, but I think we can think from a position of maximizing value and benefit. Sometimes it takes some effort, but if we spent more time thinking about how we can all win (me, the organization, my community, society etc) we may find that there are better options than if we focus on us/them.

Great article and thanks for sharing!

Comment by Tim Empringham

Thanks for coming over Tim. I really appreciated your post referenced above. Made me think. Love your suggestion of WIIFU.

Comment by Gail Severini ©

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s