The Truth About Authentic Leadership

The more leaders talk about emotional intelligence, the more they seem to be following the crowd like good little cultural conformists.

I recently caught a TV interview with Harvard Professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George. He was there to launch a new book, Discover Your True North – his sixth on the topic of Authentic Leadership and his fifth True North book.

George said he’s more excited about this book than any he’s ever written. Not only did that statement not ring true to me, it was the first of an interview full of boastful and pandering rhetoric that, to me, reflected neither authenticity nor leadership.

Whatever your definition of the term, I’m sure we can all agree that authentic leadership is not drudging up the same tired old theme, slapping an ever-so-slightly modified title and cover on it, and equating it to a laundry list of popular fads so it appears fresh and appeals to the masses.

Having worked with a large number of successful executives and business leaders over the decades, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard one digress to such flagrant self-promotion as, “Authenticity, since I wrote my first book on authentic leadership 12 years ago, has really become the gold standard for leaders,” said George.

While I agree that top executives should be true to themselves and lead with passion and purpose, I don’t see how milking that populist meme puts George anywhere near the realm of Peter Drucker or Warren Bennis, who collectively wrote 66 books full of countless insights and ideas that, decades later, are fundamental to how we manage and lead our companies.

Self-serving as his initial remark was, it only made George's response to the next question all the more incongruous. The host asked, “how is an authentic leader different from an inauthentic leader?”

“A phony? We’ve got one in Donald Trump,” he jubilantly replied. “I’ll tell you today if you want to have any millennials work for you people know who’s authentic and who’s not and they’re not going to work for a phony.” George went on to describe Trump as “Inauthentic, angry, never speaks the truth, not the real guy.”

The Donald may be a lot of things, but one thing I’m sure he’s not is phony. If anything, the opposite is true. I think he speaks his mind in public with little regard for political correctness – a refreshing leadership quality in this day and age. And yet, when business is on the line, he’s as savvy a negotiator as they come.

And yet, in the space of a five minute interview, George deftly conjured up a dizzying array of sound bites from the popular groupthink du jour, including emotional intelligence, empowerment, collaboration, culture, sustainable, diversity, millennials, and, of course, that performance reviews and hierarchical leadership are no longer cool.

And yes, he also managed to work in mentions of Steve Jobs, Google and Facebook. I mean, how could he not?

While I believe all the hype over emotional intelligence is way overblown, at least it was a novel concept when first introduced, developed and popularized by the likes of Howard Gardner, Wayne Payne, Peter Salovey, John Mayer and Daniel Goleman. And while I also think the self-reporting and testing model for measuring emotional quotient (EQ) is utter nonsense, at least it’s original utternonsense.

It seems that much of George’s contribution to the fields of management and leadership since leaving Medtronic at the height of the dot-com market bubble was to interview a lot of CEOs and ride the coattails of feel-good leadership fluff that the content-generating and consuming social media hordes can’t get enough of.

Look, I didn’t wake up today expecting to do a hit piece on a successful former executive. By all accounts, Bill George had a remarkably successful career with Medtronic, Honeywell, Litton and the U.S. Department of Defense. He sits on the boards of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and the Mayo Clinic. The guy’s had one hell-of-a career and I respect that.

But here’s the thing. While genuine self-awareness is fundamental to a happy life and a fulfilling career, that’s nothing new. Any good shrink could have told you that long ago. Emotional intelligence may be an interesting concept, but it’s not the “be all” and “end all” it’s been made out to be. And its eponymous metric, EQ, is in no way predictive of leadership potential or ability.

And it certainly seems that, the more leaders talk about authenticity, the more they seem to be following the crowd like good little cultural conformists. That’s not leadership. That’s followership.