The light of lights looks always on the motive, not the deed, the shadow of shadows on the deed alone – William Butler Yeats
How do we understand authenticity? Semantically speaking, reviled boss of Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, is about as authentic a business leader as one could hope to find, however unsavoury we might find him. But that’s not really what we mean when we talk about wanting an authentic leader, is it? What we really mean is we want someone who holds to the same values, beliefs and ideals as we do, communicates them well and then demonstrates them through their behaviours. So, if you lean rightwards politically Nigel Farage might be authentic and if you lean toward the left it might be Jeremy Corbyn who floats your boat (leaving aside for a moment the entire absence of any other leadership credentials from either man). We all recognise that political leaders are required to take a stance on any number of issues and that the priority those issues hold are subject to the shifting tides of relevance and public interest. Expediency demands a message or policy to pacify special interest groups, U-turns and flip-flops And so it goes in the workplace. Not all people like to be managed the same way, preferring different types of interaction at different times depending on mood or business priorities.
Is it inauthentic to flex your leadership style to suit the type of person you need to carry with you? Sometimes there is challenge and we are required to define ourselves to suit circumstances. Take Jaffa Cakes (I know I do, they’re lush). There have been imitators, but McVitie produce, arguably, the gold standard. A Genoise sponge base, topped by a zesty orange jelly and covered in rich, dark chocolate. Yum. But, in 1991, a threat appeared. Not in the form of a competitor but in the eminence grise of Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. A challenge to the Jaffa Cake’s very status. For VAT purposes, is a Jaffa Cake considered to be authentically a cake? Due to some arcane piece of legislation, VAT is payable on chocolate-covered biscuits but not on chocolate-covered cakes. I’d argue that, to consumers, it mattered very little whether McVitie considered their product to be a biscuit or a cake.Faced with the VAT man, however, the manufacturer had to define their product very clearly as a cake. They successfully did so. Jaffa Cakes remain, resolutely, cakes. From a certain point of view.
Here’s another example. Revered Jedi Master, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi is tasked with ensuring the safe delivery of the Death Star plans hidden in the memory systems of R2-D2 to the leaders of the Rebellion against the Empire. Considering himself too old for this sort of thing, he enlists the help of whiny Tatooine farmboy, Luke Skywalker, son of his former apprentice, Anakin Skywalker. Knowing that Anakin had been seduced by the dark side of the Force and, in turn, had taken on the persona of the evil Sith lord, Darth Vader, Kenobi decides to withhold this important detail from Luke in order to enlist him to his cause. Of course, the truth eventually comes out but by that time Luke is a almost a fully-fledged Jedi himself and is ultimately able to confront and redeem his father, saving the galaxy from certain disaster (at least, that is, until The Force Awakens rolled around).
Might not authenticity, then, like much in the world of work, be dependent on context? Taken in context, Obi-Wan’s impropriety has not diminished his legacy. Surely, at heart, it’s purity of motive that matters most. And that’s most often missing in the way much business is conducted.
PS – I am indebted to the three people who proposed the topics around which this post is constructed. @MJCarty suggested “Authenticity”, @DillyTante “Cake” and @HR_Gem “Star Wars”. Many thanks to them.
The title of this post is taken from a 1980s advertising campaign for fresh cream cakes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zswOFJZ4vZE