Prof. Kevin Sharer

In his monthly column for the Harbus, Professor Kevin W. Sharer shares his thoughts on the issues facing HBS students.

A very successful CEO of a respected and large global brand shared four ideas with the top 500 executives at their annual leadership gathering. This meeting is the key leadership leverage opportunity for the CEO, and the message to the team was carefully considered and debated for months beforehand, so this was no off-the-cuff or improvised set of messages. One of the messages was to be authentic. At HBS, one of the most popular courses in the EC year for well over a decade has been Authentic Leadership Development, where students reflect on their own journey, model good leadership behaviors and engage in intense small-group interactions.

Senator Sanders’ supporters—when questioned about his policies and their feasibility—often point to the over forty years of consistency of his message and his unmistakable conviction and passion in expressing his views. There can be no doubt that Senator Sanders is authentic, and at the time of this column’s writing, he is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination for President. Authenticity clearly is in the air.

Let’s probe more deeply. What does authenticity mean in practice? Are there any downsides from having a focus on authenticity as the core idea in your journey to be the best leader you can be? How will you think about your potential to grow beyond your HBS years?

At its core, “authentic” means “true” and “real,” rather than “artifice,” “insincere” or “manipulative.” No one could argue that being an inauthentic person or leader is a winning or good path. This need for authenticity and truth—in today’s world of abounding falsehoods and frequent twisted and imbalanced advocacy—is particularly powerful and rare. Everywhere we turn, we suspect the information and messages we receive. Instagram? Really? Twitter never has context. Leaders advocate for all kinds of things and do so few of them. Every news story is seemingly trying to argue an underlying, often unacknowledged, narrative. The need for authenticity has never been greater and its presence has never been rarer.

The leader who is authentic, who means what he or she says and, most importantly, who follows up through action must be the path to choose. Part of the journey to personal authenticity taught in the EC course focuses on those crucible, personal and unique experiences that formed you. Recognizing, understanding and using those formative experiences can be vital to your development as a leader. So, perhaps in the lexicon of authenticity in leadership, we can add an element of personalization. You need to be the real you, rather than try to be someone else. We could delve deeper into the arguments for authenticity and find even more support. Clearly, when we frame being authentic as being real, true and sincere, authenticity becomes a profoundly important leadership virtue too often lacking in today’s world.

The title of this column surprisingly had a question mark after the title word. The question mark does not suggest anything is wrong with authenticity per se, but begs the question: Is it enough or could it be interpreted and implemented in suboptimal ways?

Let’s go back to bedrock. HBS’ mission is to develop leaders who make a difference in the world. We try to prepare graduates who have a strong moral compass, who are self-aware, who understand the fundamentals of good leadership and who are fact based critical thinkers equipped to address complex and ambiguous problems and opportunities. Being authentic must be in the mix. The risk of embracing authenticity as the overarching leadership idea is that it could be interpreted as being mostly a manifestation of your journey, behaviors and belief system. Be the authentic you! That would be great if, at about thirty years old, you were the best leader you could be and there was little opportunity for growth or new experience. Most of us looking back can see many elements of our current selves in our thirty-year old selves. However, what is different due to a lifelong journey of learning is at least as consequential.

I am not suggesting that the “true” and “sincere” part of authenticity should change. It should not. The thing that should improve is behaviors. More humility. Better judgment. More empathy. Better listening. More courage. Better and more complex understanding of the whole ecosystem in which you operate. More pointed and more useful feedback. More and better role models. The point is simple. The authentic you now hopefully and very likely is a good person and you say what you mean and mean what you say. But the authentic you of the future will be the product of a continuing journey of growth and development that will call you to change, adapt and improve. If you hold “authentic” as “true” and “real,” that is good. If you hold “authentic” as the unique you formed by early experiences that are the unchangeable source code defining you, think again. Life and leadership are an opportunity and an imperative for lifelong growth. Be authentic, but be sure you keep growing.

Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was the CEO of Amgen for 12 years and, before that, Amgen’s president for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade, he was chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.