There is an emerging area of leadership practice and theory called Authentic Leadership. If you’ve studied leadership principles for a while you’ll know they are often relabelled (and repriced) social science theories. After all, leadership is grounded in social interaction. Authentic Leadership is no exception. At its core, Authentic Leadership explores a central question many people ask themselves when needing to lead through change: “Am I being authentic?”
I remember a time in my early thirties where I was appointed a voluntary leadership role over around 80 volunteers as a creative director at a large church. A few weeks into the role I was strongly encouraged by the pastor in charge of me to put some more vibrance, positivity and energy into my role – particularly on Sundays. At the time I was working a full-time job, I had three kids under 5 at home, and was struggling to be awake for the 6:30am starts on a Sunday. Yet, I was committed to the task, loved the team to bits and a role like this was a young minister’s dream.
Despite my efforts I was being pulled up week after week by the pastor in charge. He wanted me to bring more energy to the stage and employ more fervency to prayer times and the meetings. Some Pentecostals know what I’m talking about [cough. like Hillsong. cough.]. I honestly didn’t have it in me physically and at the time my leadership style was more relational, peacemaking and encouraging. It may not have been what the team needed, but it was the only coat I felt comfortable in at the time. When the senior leader asked me to BE or ACT differently, I argued that this wasn’t me. That it didn’t feel authentic.
The truth is, what I was feeling was not an imposition on my authenticity, but instead an imposition on my comfort zones. It was an unwillingness to embody new things. It triggered my prejudice against performance style worship. My sense of familiar safety was at threat. I now know, that although I thought I’d arrived at 32, I had only been in my skin for 32 years – and that’s still young. Many of those years was spent simply being led by two underlying questions of identity we all ask ourselves in order to make our way in the world: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where do I belong?’.
Needless to say, I couldn’t come to the praise party and was relinquished of my role in a poor manner. In common fashion, my demotion was swept under a rug labelled, ‘Dave wants to spend more time with his family.‘ I complied but I soon left the church because losing rungs on prominent ladders can be awkward and shameful for everyone, to say the least. In reflection, perhaps the leadership could have employed a better leadership style of honesty then too – even if that felt inauthentic. This much I know; forgiveness works. We were all young and learning.
What then, could we have done differently? Why do we mistake discomfort, unease and angst as signs we are being inauthentic? Here’s what we know from the research in this field; that mature and successful leaders, whether in an organisation, home, church, sports team etc. know how to adjust their leadership style to suit the needs of the people in the given situation (this is called Situational Leadership). And they can do so, while remaining themselves! They can adjust their style, approach, habits, intensity, focus, language, dress and not feel disconnected from themselves.
I like the Old Testament story of a Hebrew man called Joseph who, as time and trials passed, was able to remain himself regardless of the coat he wore; whether it was prison rags or the mantle of a prime minister. Joseph knew who he was, who his God was, what his purpose was. He learnt to be himself in different, difficult circumstances. Consider Israel’s king David through this lens. David struggled to put on Saul’s battle armour on as a young man before facing Goliath. It wasn’t that a King’s armour wasn’t good for young David, the scriptures actually tell us young David tried the armour on but couldn’t move around because he wasn’t used to it. But at least he tried it on! He got a feel for the weight of leadership and understood the strength needed to bear it.
Here is the hard but good news. The only way of developing this skill of remaining your truest self, regardless of what is required of you, is by trying out new things until they become a way you are comfortable with – and can put on, when needed. This is not always easy to do in your youth. Maturity and experience allow you the hard-won benefit of learning how to wear the leadership style, without it wearing you and going to your head. There is nothing more impotent than rigid personas and leaders whose mask has melted into their face.
People that have been parents for a while know what it takes to be an authentically loving mum or dad who can move well between being the hard stern task driver or the soft permissive nurturer, when the need arises. I don’t know about you but this agile skill is hard won, uncomfortable at first but it most certainly is not inauthentic.
So, whether it’s a new role at work, in the home, at a church or a compelling sense within yourself that it’s time to reinvent yourself, remember that true authenticity is tested and forged over time in discomfort, unease, and at the ego’s expense. A life led with purpose, courage and self-awareness is one that is willing to adapt with and explore every technicolour of life’s dreamcoat.
Now, go try new things!