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Authentic Leadership

Some of you just had an “Eeeew, buzzword” reaction. Don’t blame you a bit. Many of the “flavor of the month” leadership fads came from taking what was authentic in the original organization and trying to transplant it to an organization where it clashed with the dominant culture.

A nurse educator recently shared with me that the faculty were directed to read, The Fish Philosophy* over the summer and that they would be quizzed on it at the start of the fall semester. Seriously? Quizzed on it? I asked her how that came to be. She stated that someone in the administration had read it and recommended it to the Dean. Now everyone was required to read it—and pass the quiz. Some poor fish just rolled over on its bed of crushed ice.

While I agree that a great many colleges and universities could use a major overhaul in customer service, particularly with adult students, can you even remotely picture faculty who teach students to make life and death medical decisions relating to a fish market? Perhaps I simply lack imagination, however, all I can picture are a lot of embarrassed, bored or eye rolling faculty thinking, “You’re kidding, right?” Have your staff been through eye-rolling leadership initiatives?

Any leadership philosophy can, of course, be used authentically in SOME organizations. It's unlikely that a philosophy can be used authentically in ALL organizations.** While the administrator who read the book may have felt its principles authentically, she and the Dean probably didn’t think through organizational authenticity. A simple question to determine organizational authenticity is, “Would 80% of the people here feel proud to talk about this philosophy or embarrassed to talk about it?” Another question is, “Would the CEO be proud to announce this initiative and personally do the kick off?”

We can certainly learn best practices from organizations that developed authentic leadership cultures resulting in happy employees, happy customers and a strong bottom line. The trick is to take only those best practices that will be authentic within our own organizations. Adapt those practices, own them, make them authentically yours. In this nursing school, it would certainly be appropriate for faculty to model the same caring toward students that they expect the students to demonstrate with patients. It would also be appropriate for faculty to model rigor in decision making at the same level that the nurses must use in patient care.

If the leadership culture you’re growing is proudly talked about by 80% of the staff, you’ve done a great job, stick with it. If 80% talk about the initiative as if it’s a fungus they’d like to scrub off, it will be an expensive failure. In the event of a fungus, being authentic matters even more. It probably sounds like this, “I’m sorry, we were wrong. We believed this would be a good direction and we missed the mark. As of today, we’re dropping this initiative.” Or “We had it right; the world around us changed. We need to adapt to the new circumstances.” These are words we would probably say and hear a lot more if authentic leadership were universally practiced.

Authentic means genuine; it means being the real deal. Authentic leaders and authentic organizations are they best that they can be—being true to who they are. Chasing the best that someone else was won’t get you there.

*The Fish Philosophy grew out of the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle were they organically grew a fun, customer-oriented way of working. There are excellent customer service and leadership points in it.

**While there are likey underlying leadership principles coming out of neuroscience that have universal application, people being people and marketers being marketers, there will be spins put on the information.

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