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The Problem with Being an Authentic Leader

The delicate balance of authenticity and confidentiality in leadership.

Coco Chanel put it best: “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.” The political and marketing arenas have picked up on this need to be genuine. Entrepreneur Magazine exposed the trend of millennial women using the power of the purse to send a message, which has in effect, changed the way companies brand their products. The author writes, “Millennial women distrust traditional advertising because we know that marketers are trying to sell us on impossible ideals.” In a nutshell, they’re looking for authentic portrayals of women in marketing.

Traditionally, the word “authentic” referred to a work of art that was original to the creator. In essence, it was something that genuine or not fake. In a more contemporary frame of reference, it identifies someone who is transparent about the way they think or feel. And the desire for authenticity has crossed into what we expect from our leaders—so much so that many companies now encourage authenticity training within their management positions.

In this rising desire to be genuine and see authenticity in others, how can we as women leaders in the church reflect and rise to the current needs? We long to connect in meaningful ways and openly express how we truly feel to those with whom and to whom we minister. There are times, however, when we are privy to information that we need not divulge—both the news and our opinions about it. Below, we will look at how to balance authenticity with intentionally holding back.

Emotional Authenticity v. Strategic Authenticity

In a blog post from Psychology Today, Dr. Christine Meineke distinguishes between emotional authenticity and strategic authenticity. Emotional authenticity represents the value of allowing your “true feelings to be known.” This is the quality that most people equate with authenticity. As part of a community, emotional authenticity helps me build stronger bonds within the group because mutual trust develops when others know how I feel. This is especially true as a leader. When I begin to open up emotionally, others start to understand my passion and the purpose behind the decisions I make.

There is a second, lesser known type of authenticity, however: strategic authenticity. The emphasis is on being true to your goals rather than to your feelings. When I served as a hospital chaplain, I often had to place my own emotions aside to best serve the families and staff at the proper time. This is an example of strategic authenticity. Meineke writes, “There is nothing inauthentic about putting on a brave face and soldiering on, if your goal is to get to a finish line.”

As Christians, we desire to be as genuine as possible—both to ourselves and to others. In leadership, however, there is a need to be authentic in message and in mission, but prudent in revealing our method. For instance, Pastor Andy Stanley states, “Uncertainty is a permanent part of the leadership landscape. It never goes away.” Because there will always be uncertainty with our circumstances, it can be risky to reveal too much too soon about our goals or objectives. For instance, if we share about our goals and they don’t come to fruition, our credibility weakens.

As women in ministry, it’s important that we distinguish between our personal feelings and our ministerial goals. Understanding the difference between emotional and strategic authenticity helps us do this. I know I feel that when I am in a relationship with someone, I have an obligation to be as genuine and transparent with them as possible. I expect the same in return. But there are times when strategic authenticity must take center stage. Sharing confidential information can be detrimental to the community. Talking too soon about a new church initiative can lessen the impact of the grand announcement. Voicing all my insecurities to those I minister to, for instance, can affect how they trust me as their leader, thus contradicting my long-term strategy of leading them well.

The more I study Scripture, the more I realize that Christ did not handle his ministry with complete transparency. In fact, he’s a great example of strategic authenticity. For instance, Jesus often taught using parables. He told stories to the crowds and later dissected the teaching and application with his closest companions (Mark 4:11; Matthew 13:11–17). Also, at certain times, Jesus commanded secrecy regarding both his identity and mission in order to accomplish his ultimate redemptive goal on the cross (Mark 8:27–30). Yet, while Jesus was methodical in his delivery regarding how and to whom he revealed who he was, he remained emotionally open to those he encountered.

Times for Emotional Authenticity

In “The Authenticity Paradox” from the Harvard Business Review, the author stresses not disclosing any feelings of insecurity to those we lead because it can cause trust issues. I believe this is a place where the church and the secular world should be different. As Christians, we know that everyone has struggles, and being open about them to a degree can actually engender trust from our teammates.

As we look at the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul make themselves vulnerable. Jesus confided to Peter, James, and John about how distressed he was in light of facing the cross (Matthew 26:37–38). Perhaps the most famous example of Jesus’ emotional authenticity is his response to the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). He also allowed others to see his passion for his Father’s house (John 2:13–17), his frustration with the faithlessness of man (Luke 9:41), and his sorrow over the rejection of the Jewish people (Luke 19:41–42). Likewise, Paul frequently mentioned his own depravity and his feelings of longing and suffering (2 Corinthians 12:6–10; 1 Timothy 1:15–16; 2 Timothy 1:4). These examples propagate humility rather than weakness.

Christ’s example of both emotional and strategic authenticity shows us how utilizing this method of leadership need not leave us in a state of internal duplicity. Rather, we are more careful in how we relate to others, placing God’s kingdom above our need to relieve our emotional pressure valve. There are times, of course, that as good leaders we should share our feelings. To determine when it’s appropriate, I consider these five questions:

  1. Am I sure that by sharing I would not break any confidentiality?
  2. Am I sure I’m not sharing out of pride, frustration, anger, or fear?
  3. Will sharing help others grow closer to Christ or to other believers?
  4. Can others learn from my experience?
  5. Can I gain insight from others by sharing?

If I can answer “yes” to all of these questions, then I’m happy to share more vulnerably about how I’m feeling. I also follow these dos and don’ts for sharing effectively:

Do: Take time to think and pray through the situation. Examine your situation and see how sharing versus not sharing will help or hurt your goal for your ministry.

Do: Have a godly mentor outside of your ministry (or church) to give you perspective.

Do: Think ahead about what you are going to say.

Do: Use feeling words. Your emotions are valid and it’s okay to let others know you are disappointed or frustrated in a situation. But remember to use those times to talk about how you see God at work in the situation.

Don’t: Talk negatively about others.

Don’t: Beat around the bush with people and circle around the truth.

Don’t: Divulge confidential information.

As women leaders, we’re working for a purpose that is greater than ourselves. Therefore, being open to sharing what we have learned through our weaknesses and failures can be a powerful tool by which God can work. Inappropriately divulging details of personal struggles, interpersonal conflicts, and sensitive programming information, however, can distract others from growing in their own personal relationship with God. Learning to find a proper balance between emotional and strategic authenticity can help strengthen any woman’s capacity toward leadership.

Cortney Whiting is a wife and mother of two children. She has a Masters of Theology degree from Dallas Seminary and over 15 years of ministry experience. You can find out more about Cortney on her blog.

March30, 2017 at 8:00 AM

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