News From The Authenticity Wars

Authentic Leadership is a topic I’ve discussed with friends, fellow coaches, and anyone who is interested in how leadership works. In fact, last year I weighed in on something that HBR writer Herminia Ibarra dubbed the “Authenticity Paradox.” Much more recently bestselling writer and professor Adam Grant took to the NYT Sunday Review to explain “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.” It’s a pithy article that covers several criticisms/worries about the ways that the Authentic Leadership movement may give leaders a rationale to justify their bad behavior as just “being themselves.” Things got even more interesting when Brené Brown, one of the foremost advocates of Authentic Leadership, took to the internet to take exception with Grant’s article. He used a small quote from one of her books and she was not pleased. (This is pretty exciting stuff in the world of leadership development).

If you want to follow along, here’s some of my thoughts after discussing it with one of my team members, who was also watching the debate unfold in real time last week:

1. Both of the articles are good and worth reading. Grant successfully points out several short-comings of the ways Authentic Leadership can be /is being misused in the world of management and leadership development. Brown really does the same thing and makes a good attempt at rescuing the concept from those who might misuse it. Where Grant ends his article with a call for Sincerity over Authenticity, Brown spends her time outlining the way (not to be too redundant) “real” Authenticity Leadership should work.

2. Having said that, Brown’s rebuttal seems an over-reaction to Grant’s perspective. I found the tone uncharacteristically sharp considering that they seem to be in agreement about many important ideas. I wonder if it is (in part) an effort by Brown to be “truly authentic” and model the way she calls for people to respond to situations like this. Its understandable that someone would not like their life’s work to be reduced to just a few sentences, and then to have those sentences used as a bit of a straw man to potentially undermine that work. While Grant might say he was simplifying for the sake of accessibility to readers, you get why Brown felt she needed to respond.

3. My favorite part of this whole back-and-forth has been the online discussion between the two principals afterward. The point-counterpoint comments section of Brown’s article, as well as a clarifying article written by Grant, makes me hopeful that this entire debate will move the discussion forward and bear more fruit. Their post-article commentary really enhances the learning instead of degrades it, as they both try to see the others’ key ideas and remain collegial and respectful. People who have a hard time disagreeing constructively can learn a lot from how Grant and Brown are handling themselves here.

4. My bottom line is that both Grant and Brown make very helpful points. If Grant is advocating that the goal should be Sincerity instead of unchecked Authenticity as he defines them — I can wholeheartedly agree. I also share his belief that just about all virtues can become destructive when overused. Having said that, in the richness of her full ideas, Brown offers really useful and effective advice to people about how they can be powerful, inspiring leaders.