The essence of great leadership is always a lead story for Harvard Business Review, but even we've been surprised to see the coverage of the BP oil spill turning into a story about President Obama's leadership style. Suddenly the press is full of commentary on why he's not showing more anger about the situation, and whether his air of detachment will cost him support down the road.
Everyone knows that Obama is not the type to lose his cool. Few people who reach high office are. But when a situation unquestionably warrants some rage, the lack of it seems remarkable, and even suspect. If someone is so good at controlling their impulses, we wonder, what does that say about their authenticity?
By sheer coincidence, Bill George was visiting HBR's offices today. He's the management thinker most associated with the notion of "authentic leadership," having written the 2003 bestseller by that name. A former CEO of Medtronic, he teaches now at Harvard Business School and is developing a new executive education course on the topic.
Being authentic, George says, is a question of developing a style consistent with your personality and character, and not modifying that style to emulate someone else or conform to some expected model. "During my career, I received lots of feedback to modify my leadership style so as to fit in with the organization's norms," George claims. "Had I followed this advice I would have become a 'plain vanilla' manager or even been seen as a phony." A leader who isn't seen as authentic, he notes, can't earn the level of trust required to get people to follow a vision of change.
At the same time, there's a well-known phenomenon in the literature of women's leadership known as the "double-bind." Because society associates more masculine traits with leadership (based on the long experience of male-dominated organizations), women who hope to win leadership positions must exhibit those traits. Yet, because the traits are not consistent with society's concept of femininity, those women end up being judged harshly -they're not quite what they should be, not quite comfortable to be around. Alice Eagly and Linda Carli have written convincingly that women are "damned if they do, and damned if they don't" emulate masculine models of leadership.
In the current criticism of Obama, we're seeing another form of double bind, at least as difficult to navigate. Today Show's Matt Lauer found him frustratingly cerebral, but how would the general public have felt if he'd been visibly enraged? As one writer, William Jelani Cobb, told CNN: "It would have fed deeply into a pre-existing set of narratives about the angry black man."
Bill George isn't wrong: leaders must be authentic. But somehow we must reconcile his advice with the reality that, for those who don't naturally conform to our society's ingrained notion of a leader (white,male, and tall), authenticity isn't such an uncomplicated attribute. It isn't just you who has to get comfortable with your differences. It's your followers, as well. We'd have more diverse leadership, and a bracing level of authenticity, if only followers would stop to question what they're comfortable with, and why.
Julia Kirby is an Editor-at-Large at Harvard Business Review