Most people love the idea that authenticity is a key ingredient of effective leadership. They also can’t understand the popularity of Donald Trump, the most authentic politician in the world right now. This creates a considerable cognitive dissonance: are authentic leadership theories wrong, or is The Donald destined to be the greatest president of the most powerful country on earth?
There is no doubt that authenticity is Trump’s biggest weapon. Even if he didn’t write his own speeches – and apparently he does – his delivery is always natural, to the point of dismissing the context and the stakes. In fact, Trump’s performances appear totally improvised and unpredictable (even to Trump himself).
Authenticity is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, or, shall we say, the ‘weholder’ (it is what most people see in someone else, regardless of whether they have it). There is no other way to test it. To be authentic means to seem authentic to others. That is, to come across as though you are not role playing or acting. Trump makes Obama, George W Bush and Ronald Reagan seem as scripted and artificial as the average US talk show host.
But the real issue with authenticity is that it has no relationship with actual leadership potential (just look at Jeremy Corbyn). Sure, in an age where most politicians seem fake and interchangeable in terms of their background, policies and rhetoric, being yourself will make you stand out. However, most charismatic leaders – and remember that it’s hard to be charmed by someone if you disagree with their views – continue being themselves after they get to power. Yet their authenticity stops being of use when the task is not to get elected but to build and manage an effective leadership team, get big decisions right, and govern.
As the biography of any populist leader or charismatic dictator will show, a considerable proportion of authentic leaders come with narcissistic and psychopathic personalities. Trump has become the Kim Kardashian of politics and the media are making the most of it. The only problem is that voters are left with little guidance to evaluate candidates’ real potential for leadership, which have nothing to do with their ability to get elected. Oscar Wilde said that life imitates art: this would be reality imitating a reality TV show, but the latter would be much cheaper (and shorter).
This article originally appeared in Management Today.