Authentic Organisation

culture leadership organisation Oct 15, 2020
Authentic Organisation

Written by Dr. Richard Claydon | image: @octoberroses

“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” - May Sarton


The above quote, on authenticity, is one of my favourites. Before reading on, I'd like you to consider the following: Is it the same level of daring if you are in a position of power to when you are in a position of no power? If not, why not? Keep it in mind, because it will help prepare you for the latter steps in the article.

The aim of this post is to examine the complexities involved with becoming an authentic leader running an authentic organisation. It’s vital to note that the idea of authentic living emerges out of a complete dissatisfaction with having to abide with the expectations, rules and norms of a culture, and a turn inwards to find better ways of being.

As a concept, authenticity is incompatible with organisational culture, which poses a core problem for leaders. Only the leader can be authentic. Everybody else must be bound by the leader’s values, which are tapped to structure the culture. Freedom for one could be bondage for everybody else.

Keeping this paradox in mind, the below step-process aims to help a leader interested in being authentic think reflectively, critically and creatively about what that would involve at a personal and organisational level.


Understand Authentic Leadership: Authenticity is being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character and the rejection of external cultural values and morals. An authentic leader is driven by internal motivations and desires, bringing his "true self" to work every day. Ideas and practices emerge from and are transmitted by you and you alone. It's a big responsibility.



Accept the Core Problem of Authenticity: With no external cultural or moral code helping an authentic leader determine between ethical and non-ethical positions, every option is of equal value. With no checks, this can result in:

  • Hedonistic lifestyles

  • Corrupt business practices

  • Nihilistic despair

  • Failing to address these risks (very real despite much of the fluffiness that surrounds the idea of authentic leadership in the popular press) will likely undermine any long-term success.



Develop a Solution: Take a leap of faith in which you postulate some form of perfectly moral entity you can employ to guide your decision making and stop you slipping into nihilism or becoming a junky for new experiences. This can be:

  • God, a god or gods, spirituality

  • The absolutely ethical philosopher

  • An utopian ideal

  • It doesn't matter if the demands of such perfect constructs or entities are unachievable or unreachable. The point of the impossible dream is you pursue it. It's all in the journey.



Find a Helping Hand: Unless you are highly skilled at self-reflection, you will almost certainly need some form of coach or guide to help you interrogate your decisions to ensure they are authentic and ethical.

Please find a good one. Organisational coaching is a relatively new discipline with little official certification. Look for a coach that is either:

  • Intellectually capable of helping you run with ideas after the reflection (look at their academic qualifications beyond their coaching certificates)

  • Experienced in leadership with some coaching training

  • Very highly skilled in exactly the areas of self you know you struggle with (tendency towards despair = coach A, towards hedonism = coach B)

  • Take your time and select carefully. There are too many charlatans out there!



Shift Perspective: You now have to design organisational practices and structure around your authentic leadership. This is by far the greater challenge because it is paradoxical:

  • Being authentic, you want your employees to be authentic

  • Authenticity is alien to external cultural structures

  • You need external cultural structures for your organisation to even hope to succeed

This is an unsolvable paradox. Whatever you do will be messy. That's just the way it is.



Determine an Organisational Strategy: Are you going to:

  • Allow an anarchic free for all in which everybody is allowed to present authentic ideas as and when they occur in the hope that it will generate so much energy and motivation some are sure to stick and succeed?

  • Only employ people who have exactly the same type of authenticity that drives you, assuming a binding organisational culture will emerge from such aligned thinking?

  • Abandon or modify your authentic ideals and restrict the authenticity of others by designing a culture that ensures certain behavioural practices?

Obviously, none of these are ideal if you are fully invested in authenticity and want your company to succeed. The first totally abandons structure and the last restricts authenticity. The middle hugely risks being stuck in a talent trap and failing to get enough people thinking in enough diverse ways to help your organisation to grow. It's a complex issue and will require a fair bit of thought.



Allow and Find Authenticity in your Organisational Culture: I'm going to assume that the above issue was so complex that the answer wasn't pure and some form of hierarchical culture that governs behaviour developed. If it hasn't, I congratulate you as you've reinvented organisation. But let's assume you haven't. How then do we allow and find authentic people having authentic ideas in a culture when they, by nature, resist cultural mores?

Answer: It will emerge in humour, sarcasm, jokes, witticisms, and all types of ironic communication. Listen to it and take it seriously!

Without going into too much detail, the concepts of irony, authenticity and cultural disintegration are indelibly linked. The great ironists (Socrates, Cicero, Jonathan Swift, Soren Kierkegaard, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, Jon Stewart, John Oliver (to name but a few)) all point out the absurdity of cultural practices, the self-dazzled hubris of its leaders, and the follies and fallacies that germinate the social landscape. The concept of authenticity emerged from Kierkegaard's analysis of Socrates' exhortation that we should live an examined life (hence all the self-reflection, self-awareness and coaching that attach to the concept). Irony occurs when it becomes impossible to live authentically because the powerful in the culture will punish or mock those that question its tenets.

  • Socrates = executed

  • Cicero = murdered

  • Swift = deliberate career derailment by the church

  • Kierkegaard = mocked across society

  • Voltaire = exiled

  • Wilde = imprisoned

  • Stewart = marginalised

  • Oliver = going strong at the moment (watch this space)



So, Don't Kill the Messenger: Authentic living and its associated ideas will initially emerge in the ironic form if an organisation has any type of cultural expectations of its people. Treat it as resistance and punish those who express themselves you deny the very principles of authenticity. You might want to, but in doing so you undermine your own authenticity and potentially your long-term organisational performance. Embrace it, listen to it and learn from it, and you will have solved the paradox of accepting authentic behaviour in a cultural setting.

Remember: Authentic ideas emerge in the ironic form when confronted by the necessary restrictions on behaviour that organisations require to succeed.

Good luck on your complex journey towards authentic leadership and organisation.