Authenticity: will we fake it?

Mar 08 2006 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

Is 'authentic leadership' the latest management fad? If it is, it would be the cruellest irony of all.

Unlike most terms bandied about in management, 'authentic' is a proper, real word. The concept of 'authenticity' in philosophical terms is at least 200 years old, having been the subject of much thought by Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir and others in the existentialist tradition. Authentic existence is a way of being in the world that is true to oneself and not overly shaped by the passing frenzies and – yes - fads of the crowd.

It would be ironic at a deeper level, too. Our very propensity to deal in fads and to lose interest when the latest managerial technique from the snake oil salesmen fail to deliver the promises on the package is probably a result of a sad neglect of the existentialists.

Of far greater impact on western thought has been a sort of Newtonian assumption that human societies and organisations, especially when they become very large, are not really collections of humans – living authentically or otherwise – but rather 'systems' that ought to obey some mechanical logic.

This concept forms the entire basis of classical economics, Taylorism and the MBA. It only survived through the 20th Century because its main rival was Marxism, its close ideological cousin, which was slightly worse.

It is so much a part of the air that we breathe that it is unnoticeable; this assumption that there must be some universal, mechanistic rules determining the outcomes of complex human societies. So organisations will copy the matrix management system of another company; outsource according to the same template; install the same total quality processes and, hey presto – the outcomes are completely different.

It is very, very difficult to shake this assumption from the mindset of most managers. The problem stems in part from the fact that companies deal in money; money has to be accounted for, and hence we produce lots of numbers. It is therefore tempting to borrow from the world of engineering and apply numerical formulae as though we were dealing with objects.

The concept of 'synergy' from a merger is a typical example of this flawed way of thinking. It is mechanistically assumed that the merged entity must be at least the sum of the parts. This conceptual error explains why mergers nearly always fail. People don't behave like billiard balls, atoms or synergistic units. They behave like people.

Why do we go on pretending in managerial models that people don't behave like people?

Unlike most management commentators, I have actually done a bit of engineering. I wasn't very good at it, but I remember enough materials science to know that you don't get far pretending that wood behaves like steel. So why do we go on pretending in managerial models that people don't behave like people?

Abraham Maslow's concept of self-actualisation is close to the concept of 'authenticity' and is half a century old. But his ideas, like others from the human relations field, are sub-consciously filtered out whenever the 'big' strategic issues are addressed. They are called the 'people side'.

Accountancy-based management models concern themselves with the 'other side', oblivious to the fact that it doesn't exist. But they control the propaganda, so their virtual parallel universe, based on mechanical models that never work, is called the 'hard' stuff, while the real people who actually make up the organisation are mysteriously relegated.

The problem is much bigger, deeper and more philosophical than is commonly recognised. The human relations field tacitly assumes that there must be some commercial logic to the orthodoxy that sidelines their thinking, so it cannot see the prison that it is in.

Being generally nice people, human relations/human resources practitioners don't like telling MBA lecturers, senior executives and investment bankers that their ideology is no more advanced or scientific than alchemy or witchcraft.

One wonders if, collectively, they will ever be bold enough to say, as the little child in the Hans Christian Andersen fable did, that 'The emperor has got no clothes'.

That would be a truly authentic gesture.


About The Author

Philip Whiteley
Philip Whiteley

Philip Whiteley, co-author of the Radical Shift blog, is a journalist specialising in management, particularly the areas of leadership, motivation and strategic human resources. He is also the Chairman of the Human Capital Forum.

Older Comments

You have hit the nail right on the head in saying that most models pretend that people don't behave like people. Disdain for the 'soft' side in deference to the 'hard' side has long been a refuge for managers.

The soft side, IMHO, is worth north of 300% per person in terms of productivity to say nothing of morale, quality of life, creativity, innovation, motivation, commitment and the like. I proved this in 4 turnarounds including a nuclear-powered cruiser and a 1300 person unionized group. One of these days, managers will discover this secret and those who do will far out-compete their peers.

Best regards, Ben Simonton Author 'Leading People to be Highly Motivate and Committed'

Ben Simnton