Let’s Get Real About Authenticity

Michael Reddy

Dean Michael Reddy

Sometimes conversations reveal more than just words.

Recently I listened to UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood interviewing Sally Jewel, secretary of the interior in the Obama administration. It was a delightful exchange, with the chancellor using his soft-spoken wit to coax Secretary Jewel into revealing pearls of wisdom gleaned throughout her remarkable career.

And hers has been quite remarkable. Jewel began her career as an engineer in the oil industry before transitioning into banking. An interest in camping and hiking led to a job with REI, the outdoor gear retail giant; Jewel eventually became the company's CEO. She also was a regent for the University of Washington before joining the Obama cabinet.

If you’ve had a fairly straightforward career path, Jewel’s nonlinear trajectory might be reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s long strange trip. But what struck me even more were Jewel’s unassuming authenticity and self-awareness, which shined through the conversation.

Authenticity is quite the buzzword these days. But as our work in teaching, patient care and discovery becomes increasingly collaborative, cultivating authentic connections and rapport are growing in significance. This is important at all levels of an enterprise, but I believe it’s essential for leadership. Effective, authentic leadership is characterized by transparency, balanced with self-awareness.

It’s not easy to excel at both. For some, like myself, transparency is the easy part. For others, self-awareness comes more naturally. Together, you get not only authenticity in leadership, but also you get to the core of emotional intelligence. And it should come as no surprise that building up emotional intelligence helps make us authentic leaders.

In fact, the four domains of emotional intelligence domains — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management — are analogous to the prevailing model of authentic leadership, which comprises four similar components: self-awareness, balanced processing, relational transparency and internalized moral perspective. Research validates this: Through a meta-analysis (fancy statistics) of the two, researchers have confirmed that emotional intelligence indeed is significantly and positively related to authentic leadership.*

So how do we apply this knowledge to leadership? For me, effective leadership hinges upon relationship management. This can be in academic, research or clinical environments. It requires being in touch with one’s emotions, and acting from them in a genuine manner. After all, people can tell when you’re faking.

I believe authentic leaders have the ability to perceive others’ feelings and how they see things. Empathy equips us to listen attentively and understand another’s perspective. Leaders who welcome opposing viewpoints and give them fair consideration imbue their leadership with authenticity. People often talk about the value of communication; I think the most valuable communication skill may be the ability to listen with empathy.

Vulnerability and resilience are not listed among the components of authentic leadership, but I believe they are invaluable. They encompass being honest and accountable for one’s actions. Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to fail and quickly learn lessons from the failure. It fosters an environment that supports learning, growth and mentorship. It is no wonder we all enjoy working with leaders who take responsibility for their actions and treat others fairly.

The similarities between emotional intelligence and authentic leadership make it easier to develop them both. Strengthening one’s emotional intelligence through self-reflection and mindfulness may help in one’s personal and professional lives. You may not end up working for a president, but others may think you’re a pretty good person to work with.