Sometimes that which makes you titter quietly can be unexpectedly informative. I recently inadvertently eavesdropped one end of a phone conversation that not only underlined just how much bad customer service there is in the world, but made me think a little too. What I heard was:

The acting manager? Why would I want to speak to the acting manager? Are the singing manager and the dancing manager too busy to answer the ****** phone?” 

The caller, having used considerable disposable income to wade through the layers of voicemail system to get this far, was now plainly running out of disposable tether. But she had a good unintentional point: why would anyone want to speak to an “acting” manager? I know it’s only a job title, but it’s a foolish one, surely? Isn’t anyone managing (or leading) who is announced as “acting” – or who gives the impression that their work is a ‘performance’ purely in the sense that it has an audience and you get paid for plausibly but briefly adopting a false persona – begging for an unhelpful response? I don’t want to talk to someone who’s only pretending to manage, now do I?

Even at the shallowest level of commentary, don’t human beings actually seek out authenticity? World music, locally-produced organic food and Fairtrade coffee haven’t risen to popularity on a tidal wave of artifice. As a species, we may have a magpie tendency for the new and shiny but we are sufficiently contradictory to also respond to and highly value the genuine. (In the 2008 US Presidential Election, you might recall that some of the harshest coverage of Sarah Palin focused on how much money had been spent on “re-packaging” her with an upmarket wardrobe.) If we want to not just earn but keep the respect of others while we perform our professional duties, being genuine in what we do and how we do it is a very effective approach: after all, ‘disingenuous’ is rarely a term of approval.

But great leadership isn’t just about giving an audience what plays best with them. It’s about being authentic, not doing authentic. If leaders are what they do as much as what they say, then what they do – how they behave – is informed firstly by self-knowledge. Great leaders know themselves so that they can be themselves. Authenticity is more than skin-deep in more than just a presentational way: it’s not just that we are receptive to it – it genuinely (no pun intended) matters.

Bill George, professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and author of Authentic Leadership and True North (which drew on his business career before moving to Harvard), has identified 10 Characteristics of Leadership. He is in no doubt as to which characteristic tops the list:

1. Authenticity “After years of studying leaders and their traits, I believe that leadership begins and ends with authenticity.”

Our individual development is not, ultimately, about becoming someone else. The beautiful swan that we may each aspire to be – no matter how we personally define it – is merely an evolved version of our person “ugly duckling”. (Hans Christian Andersen’s swan doesn’t magically change species: it was a cygnet from the start.) Even the most nutshell articles on authentic leadership (here’s one from Personnel Today) make the essentially self-evident point: authentic leadership really does have to start with you.

While all 10 of Bill George’s points are important, I also particularly noticed point 7: “ Build Enduring Relationships: They build enduring relationships with people.” Mr George and his co-author have a concept of ‘crucibles’: crucial, pivotal events in people’s lives that are key steps in their ‘journey’ – an over-used but inescapable metaphor. There is an interesting example of someone examining their own development and the role of ‘crucibles’ on Ed Batista’s blog, where I particularly noticed his emphasis of the point that one element of the transformation from manager to leader is also an evolution from “I” to “We” – a realisation that leadership is not all about the leader, it’s about those they lead. Authenticity – like any behavioural characteristic – cannot take place in a vacuum: relationships are the spaces in which our behaviours are played out.

To return to our original parallel, there is much that leaders – and aspiring leaders – could learn from actors. And this goes far beyond the usefulness of role play as a safe environment for testing new skills and interactions during training events: as Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern point out:

It’s a paradox of the theater that, in order to pretend, the actor must be real. That need requires the actor to delve inside himself, because the only way an emotion can be authentic is if it comes from within the actor. Actors, consequently, are probably more aware of authenticity than anyone else, because they’ve studied it, and themselves, so carefully.”

As actors who work closely with business leaders in development programmes, perhaps Kathy and Bell’s insight is only to be expected. But a perhaps less predictable quote from British actor Sam West makes a key point more pithily:

Try to be happy for your colleagues’ success. Acting is a collaborative art.”

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