Business and Leadership Thought Capital

Just How Honest Can a CEO Really Be?

man facing the window

Wikipedia defines authentic leadership as “an approach to leadership that emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers which value their input and are built on an ethical foundation. Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness.”

How can anyone argue with that?

Well, I would like to take a stab at it.

I have no issue with a leader’s need to be ethical and build meaningful relationships but the idea there is some absolute measure of truth and honesty (eg. authenticity) that all leaders should be held accountable to is a very slippery slope.

Every day business leaders (and government leaders even more so) are faced with 1000’s of complicated decisions and humanly complex situations that often don’t have easy or clear responses. There are moments in their lives – in fact in all of our lives – that “telling the truth” could not only be harmful to a person or an organization and may not even be seen as the “truth” by everyone. Should Steve Jobs be castigated because he was not open about his cancer until the last weeks of his life? No one in his right mind would say he did irreparable harm to Apple by hiding this fact, although he put himself at grave personal risk. After all, the company over-performed up until the last moments of his life. Jobs had also put together a well-thought through succession plan that has carried the company forward as strongly as when he was running it. Steve Jobs made a highly personal decision to hide his disease for as long as he could. Did that make him less authentic and less of a great leader?

Bizarrely enough, Steve Jobs is now being portrayed in the media and movies as being just the opposite – brutally honest – especially in his handling of employees. A literal reading of the the above definition would therefore imply that Jobs was a truly authentic and great leader. But how much personal pain did Jobs inflict on his family and colleagues with his anger and the inconsiderate and often selfish way he handled many of his employees? Does that lessen the fact that Apple under his leadership was an amazing company?

Ultimately, great leaders are far more complex than that and they shouldn’t be judged solely by how “authentic” or not they are. The reality is that business leaders need to be resilient, mindful of how they come across to everyone they come in contact with, know their business inside and out and ensure that their actions and those who work for them are consistent with a universally accepted code of ethics and laws. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

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