A true leader is other-centered and is therefore concerned primarily with facilitating someone else’s ability to reach his or her potential as a human being by helping that person develop their talents and skills and value their experiences. Authentic leadership thus comes from the heart and deals intimately with human values and human dignity.
Authenticity is the condition or quality of being trustworthy or genuine. Beyond the dictionary definition, authenticity is the harmony among what one thinks, says, and does and what one really feels–the motive in the deepest recesses of one’s heart. The adage “Deeds speak louder than words” is true as far as it goes, but what is left unsaid is that “motives speak louder than deeds.” One is authentic only when one’s motives, words, and deeds are in harmony with one’s attitude.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Your attitude thunders so loudly that I can’t hear what you say.” One’s attitude is the visible part of one’s behavior, but one’s motive is often hidden from view. When one’s visible behavior is out of harmony with one’s motive, that attitude points to a hidden agenda. Therefore, an authentic person is one who is willing to risk shedding stereotypical roles and being a real person in a relationship.
Cultural evolution expresses itself through changing values. Culture is not genetically inherited; it can only be learned from the past, modified in the present, and passed on to future generations. The notion of culture poses two questions: (1) What happens when the evolution of culture and the resulting shift in values in one part of a society tear the social fabric with great force? and (2) How do we heal the social rupture that results from this shift in cultural values?
If society has learned anything from the decade of the 1960s, it must be that one cannot unilaterally destroy “the establishment” without offering a viable alternative with which to replace it. Before an old paradigm can be cast out, there must be a new one to take its place.
How do we know a new paradigm is at hand? We know because we are suddenly faced with a crisis that tells us that our old belief system is no longer as functional as it once was. These is a points at which we must break free of our habitual belief systems and choose to change or stagnate. The frightening thing about change is that it inevitably means letting go of familiar people and place as we move to another stage in life. Each new paradigm is built on a shift of insight, a quantum leap of intuition.
On the collective level, this means that cultural evolution takes place with only a modicum of hard, scientific data. Those who cling to the old way may demand irrefutable proof that change is needed, but such proof most often is not readily available. The irony is that the old way also began as the new and also was challenged to prove change was necessary or even desirable.
Time and human effort have proven the old paradigm to has been more “right” than its predecessor but still only partially “right.” So it is with the new; it too will be more “right” than the old and eventually will be proven to be only partially correct and in need of change.
The personal trap is that any paradigm that has become comfortable also has become self-limiting. New data cannot fit into the old way of thinking, which has grown rigid with tradition and hardened with age. It is therefore necessary periodically to crack open the old if a new thought form is to enter and grow, moving the individual forward in a renewed sense of authenticity.
An old logger forcibly brought that new data cannot fit into an old way of thinking home to me some 30 years ago. I was asked to give a speech on new ways to practice forestry, ways that were deemed to be ecologically sound. Accordingly, I spent much time explaining the necessary changes in the techniques of logging if we were to have ecologically sustainable forests. I finished the session feeling that I had done a good job and basking in the warm afterglow, when an old logger came up to me.
“Sonny,” he said, his bright blue eyes snapping under his thinning silvery hair, “I’m sure you have a good point there, but I just can’t find it. Mostly,” he continued with a broad grin, “I think you’re just full of shit.”
Taken aback, I asked him why he thought that.
“Well,” he replied, “the way I think of a forest, you just don’t make no sense nohow.” Having said that, he winked at me and left.
As though struck by a bolt of lightening, I realized that he was absolutely correct. Without a dramatic shift in the philosophical underpinnings of our belief systems, new data simply have nowhere to go.
Moving forward may be difficult for those whose belief system and personal identity is totally invested in the old paradigm because, in their perception at least, there is no reason to change. For those who subscribe to a new paradigm, on the other hand, moving forward is easier, because there is something toward which to move–a new view that hints at a sustainable future, a view more in tune with today’s ecological understanding. Yet those who harbor new ideas are no better or more “right” than those who cling to the old ways; the two views are only different.
Historian Arnold Toynbee asked the critical question of why 26 great civilizations fell. The answer, he concluded, was that the people would not, or believed they could not, change their way of thinking to meet the changing conditions of their world.
Thus, communities can move forward, evolve, if you will, only to the extent that individuals within those communities are ready and willing to grow personally and accept new philosophies and methods of doing business demanded by a rapidly changing culture. Communities cannot and will not remain the same, despite those who attempt to thwart change, so those who feel they cannot or those who will not accept new ideas must fall by the wayside. Nevertheless, most people seem to resist change, even that which they understand to be good in the long term and for the generations of the future if it means they must forego their immediate desires and pleasures, which they interpret as part and parcel of their personal well-being and security.
The crux of the issue is that cultural evolution (changing times, if you will) is really about changes in how we humans relate to ourselves, one another, and the world around us. And it is precisely within the context of these changing relationships that people at large can experience growth from the authenticity of a true leader who, in turn, may be able to speed up the rate of cultural evolution for the good of the whole.
If, however, a leader hides behind the safety of political correctness or within the rigid walls of their position and refuses to accept responsibility or risk change, the citizens will keep themselves hidden from that leader. If a leader is merely a technical expert who leaves their own reactions, values, and self out of the equation, the result will be sterile, hollow leadership. It is through their own realness and aliveness that a leader can significantly touch the citizenry.
If a leader makes life-oriented choices, radiates a zest for living, is real in their relationships with the citizenry, and lets themself be known to them, despite personal problems and errors, which we all have and make, they can inspire and teach the people in the best sense of the word—through example. Witness the late Diana, Princess of Wales. This does not imply that a leader has all the answers or is without personal problems, but it does mean that a leader must be willing to look at their own life and have the courage and willingness to make the same kinds of adjustments they want the people at large to make.
A leader who “walks their talk” can inspire a sense of hope that people can change and that change is worth the risks and the effort. Such a leader can extend hope to the people and by example can inspire them to strive mightily in the face of all the uncertainties embodied in the risks of change. Hope, after all, is seeing the opportunities in an uncertain future and mapping one’s course toward them.
In short, a leader is a model for the people. If a leader models incongruent behavior, low-risk activity, deceit through vagueness and duplicity, one of two things will happen. First, they will not be trusted, and second, people of like mind will take the example as permission to follow the lead and act accordingly.
If, on the other hand, a leader models realness by engaging in appropriate self-disclosure, they can anticipate that such authenticity will inspire a greater following based on trust and emulation than would otherwise be possible. In the end, the degree of aliveness, commitment, and psychological health of a leader (who has worked through their own personal issues) is the crucial variable that determines the outcome of leadership. To accomplish this, however, one must have honor.
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Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.
This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.