Before the US elections many writers talked about the “authenticity” of Donald Trump. They averred that while he may not be politically correct, at least he spoke his mind. A poll also found that a vast majority of Republican voters felt he “says what he believes” rather than “what people want to hear.” Authenticity, in fact, became Trump’s major selling point. Marketing mavens have written of how authenticity helped build the Donald Trump brand. Even Melania Trump told Anderson Cooper in an interview that her husband was “real” and “raw” i.e. authentic.
Having observed Donald Trump over the last 18 months, when he was on TV 24×7, I wondered if he was really as authentic as he was being made out to be. He has been a successful real-estate magnate who has built a diverse business conglomerate and global brand around his name. As of October 2016, Forbes estimated his net-worth to be about $3.7 billion. Though he has had his share of failures, there is no doubt about his overall success in building his small family business into a global conglomerate.
What a leader needs to be successful is not “authenticity” but “self-regulation.” He needs to adapt his behaviour so that it is “contextually relevant”.
For such an achievement, you need execution ability, drive for results and an understanding of context. “Authenticity” figures low on the list. The larger question is: can a leader be authentic and successful at the same time? My contention is that no, it’s not possible. Let me explain my position step by step.
What is authenticity?
According to vocabulary.com the word “authenticity” means the quality of being genuine or real. When you are authentic, you feel as you do. You are true to yourself. It means irrespective of circumstances a leader does exactly what he feels is right.
Can a leader afford to be authentic?
Let’s assume you are the CEO of a struggling company and you have a presentation to the analyst. What do you do? You still put on a great exterior and do the analysts meet. You don’t show your pain. Or let’s say a business leader has just got to know about a major setback in a technology project which is very important for the organisation. It’s so happened that the project leader and a couple of other key people have decided to leave the organisation. The business leader is completely devastated and broken. Yet, in the next one hour he has to address a group of new recruits. What does he do? He keeps his feelings hidden and goes ahead and addresses this team without really showing them how he is feeling inside.
So what a leader or anyone in a workplace needs to be successful is not “authenticity” but “self-regulation.” He needs to adapt his behaviour so that it is “contextually relevant”. The role he is playing becomes more important than what he is feeling. He needs to behave keeping in mind what’s needed and good for those around. This requires him to quickly adapt to the situations and do what is right for the moment.
President Donald Trump is likely to behave very differently from presidential nominee Donald Trump… the responsibility of the role will make him do the right things.
As Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of the excellent book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, and an authority on the subject says: “Leaders need to be true to what the situation demands and what the people around them want and need.” For some this may appear to be changing one’s colours like a chameleon. But the fact is that if you don’t adapt to the requirement of the context, you will be irrelevant. This is not an issue of morality, but an issue of relevance. Remember, we live in the real life. Don’t believe those people who tell you that a leader needs to be authentic at all times. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be self-regulated and do what is relevant to the context irrespective of how you feel. The prime driver is doing what is in the best interest of the team and organisation.
As a matter of fact there are jobs which explicitly demand this skill. For example, think about customer-facing roles such as a front office executive in a hotel, bank branch or hospital. Whatever their mood or thought, they are required to behave keeping the customer’s needs in mind. Are they being inauthentic? Yes, perhaps they are, but that’s what they must do to perform their job well.
The “inauthenticity” of Donald Trump
Now let’s come back to Trump.
My take is that President-elect Donald Trump — like many other successful leaders — is not authentic. He will do things that make him successful in his mission. His rhetoric during the elections was aimed at grabbing the attention of the audience and then sustaining their engagement. He had sensed the underlying mood of the electorate who felt unheard and were majorly peeved with job loss, terrorism, illegal immigration, corruption and the establishment in Washington. In response, he peddled the message of “Make America Great Again” with calls such as “Build the Wall”, “Drain the Swamp”, “Lock Her Up”, “Ban Muslims from entering the US”, “Replace Obamacare”, etc. etc. Some of his messages were in bad taste and focused on polarising the nation, but they were the means to an end — garnering public support.
Remember, he is a person who does not like losing and he’s unlikely to risk disturbing America’s position in the world.
Will he do all that he mentioned during the campaign? I have my doubts. I believe he will finally do what is best for the country and what makes him successful as a President. Remember, he is a person who does not like losing and he’s unlikely to risk disturbing America’s position in the world. I think his focus will shift from polarising to uniting the nation. President Donald Trump is likely to behave very differently from presidential nominee Donald Trump. He is an intelligent man and the responsibility of the role will make him do the right things.
We already see a different Trump. He is already talking about keeping parts of Obamacare and the much reviled Mexico wall may never be a reality (as Trump supporter and former house speaker Newt Gingrich mentioned a few days back, the wall could have just been a “campaign device“). Trump’s graciousness about Obama upon meeting him surprised many — he called him a “good man“, which was quite a turnaround from the sheer vitriol of just months earlier.
This is just the beginning. At the end of the day, Trump will do what makes him successful as a President. He is not authentic and cannot afford to be authentic. Do you still believe he is authentic?