Authentic Leadership: It’s Really a Matter of Choice

Excerpt from “Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance” by Rodger Dean Duncan (2012).

By Rodger Dean Duncan

People notice even the smallest behavior nuances of their leaders. Then they talk. They pass along their perceptions about the way they are treated.This is one of the most important determinants of loyalty, commitment, and return business.

Hmmm. That sounds a lot like what the experts say about customers, doesn’t it?

Why the similarity? Because people’s feelings cannot be neatly compartmentalized. People have many of the same needs in every one of life’s roles.

You return again and again to a first-rate retailer such as Lands’ End or L.L. Bean or Apple or Nordstrom because you’re confident you’ll have a positive experience. You know you’ll be treated with dignity, you’ll be listened to, your needs will be met. And you reward the retailer with your loyalty and lots of return business, which, by many metrics, is the best kind of business.

The great leaders I know honor the same principles with their own people. They treat them with dignity. They listen to them. They meet their needs. And they’re rewarded with loyal workers who are passionate about strong performance and great results.

For smart leaders, this has very little “Ah-ha” factor. They understand and practice the principle almost instinctively. For others, the notion of employee-as-customer seems foreign and counterintuitive. They are the ones whose competitive advantage is slipping or nonexistent.

If you’re one of the former, my hat’s off to you. If you’re one of the latter, I simply say, “Get with the program.” You should be treating your employees at least as well as you treat your very best customer.

Either way, you’re building your leadership legacy. 

Unfortunately, much of today’s psychobabble about leadership has the wrong focus. A lot of the training and development in our corporations focuses on learning about things. People learn what to think, not how to think. They learn what to do, not how to be. They learn what to achieve, not how to achieve. They learn all about things, but very little about the nature of things.

Popular definitions of leadership also tend to be externalized. Many of the definitions focus on the outer manifestations of leadership—such as vision, judgment, creativity, drive, charisma, podium presence, etc.—rather than getting to the essence of leadership itself.

This external pattern continues at the organizational level. People often receive recognition for their external mastery. Success often is measured in terms of revenue, profit, new product breakthroughs, cost containment, market share, and many other familiar metrics. Clearly there’s value in achieving and measuring external results. But that’s not the real issue. The more relevant issues are:

  1. What produces the external results?
  2. What enables the sustaining of good external results?

The answer to the first question is leadership.

The answer to the second question is great leadership, the authentic variety.

Authentic leadership is a product of honesty. Honesty about putting the needs of others ahead of your own. Honesty in communicating information, both positive and negative. Honesty in accepting—welcoming—viewpoints different from yours. Honesty in integrating the values you profess with the behaviors you exhibit (sounds a lot like “integrity,” doesn’t it?).

Authentic leadership is also a product of clarity. Clarity in what you stand for, and what you will not stand for. Clarity in your navigation through the sea of limitless choices, using the “True North” of your values to keep you constantly on the right path and enabling you to make the necessary course corrections when you temporarily stray.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, a priest was confronted by a soldier as he walked down a road. Aiming his rifle at the priest, the soldier demanded: “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you going there?”

Unfazed by the sudden interrogation, the priest replied with a question of his own: “How much do they pay you?”

Somewhat surprised, the soldier answered, “Twenty-five kopecks a month.”

After a thoughtful pause, the priest said, “I have a proposal for you. I’ll pay you 50 kopecks a month if you’ll stop me here every day and challenge me to respond to those same three questions.

None of us has a “soldier” confronting us each day with life’s tough questions. But we can honestly ask the questions of ourselves. If we choose to, we can issue our own self-challenges to push ourselves not only to do better but to be better.

Authenticity is a matter of choice. We deliberately choose to behave in certain ways under certain circumstances.

Here’s an illustration. In the area where we live, my wife served on the board of directors of Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer group that builds homes for poor people. One summer, Habitat had a “blitz build”—they built eight homes in 10 days.

One afternoon, I was at the construction site. It was a beehive of activity, and especially colorful because all the volunteers wore brightly colored T-shirts with the names of their churches printed on the front. I was watching a man installing sheetrock. (Remember, these were not experienced drywallers, they were volunteers.) This guy was really going after it, pounding nails at blazing speed. Then he got out of rhythm and slammed his thumb with his hammer. He dropped the hammer, grabbed his thumb, and yelled “Ouch!”

I walked over to help him staunch the flow of blood, and inquired if I could ask him a couple of questions.

“I notice that when you slammed your thumb with the hammer, you said, ‘Ouch!’”

“Of course, I did,” the man said. “It hurts!”

“I’ll bet it does,” I said. “But let me ask you this. Is it possible that you might have reached into your repertoire of responses and said something other than ‘Ouch’?”

“Not with my church minister standing three feet away!” he said.

“So you’re telling me that in the nanosecond it took the ‘hurt’ signal to travel from your thumb to your brain, you deliberately decided to say, ‘Ouch,’ instead of something else?”

“I guess so,” the man answered, by now getting a bit irritated by my social science questions.

Do you believe he made that deliberate choice? Of course, he did. We’ve all done it. And we’re able to do it because we have “Ouch” in our toolkit. “Ouch” is one of the many response choices available to us. And if “Ouch” is not our “default” response, we can deliberately choose it repeatedly enough that it becomes our default response.

In our training and development programs, we can give people authentic leadership tools. Then, if they choose to use those tools often enough, they will become their default behaviors.

Excerpt from “Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance” by Rodger Dean Duncan (Copyright  2012 by Rodger Dean Duncan. All right reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author). To purchase the book, visit

Rodger Dean Duncanis author of Change-Friendly Leadershipand founder of Duncan Worldwide. His focus is leadership development and the strategic management of change. His clients have ranged from cabinet officers in two White House administrations to senior leaders in some of the world’s best companies. He earned his Ph.D. in organizational dynamics at Purdue University.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.