The polished image and the messy reality

In a lifestyle magazine, casually discarded about our house, I came across an article about a person who runs a company. It’s an a-day-in-the-life piece. It starts with breakfast with the kids. Then a meeting with the sales manager. Then a review of a product in the workshop. Then exercise and walking the dog before dinner and bedtime and catching up on admin on the iPad and so it goes. Calm, elegant, controlled. Idyllic.

I’m in a privileged position, getting to see inside businesses. I’ve seen inside that one and met that person. The difference between the article (the polished prose, the conversational tone, the carefully styled photos)… and the tense, uncertain, fraught, it’s-my-house-that’s-on-the-line reality is what sticks in my mind.

A business person, an entrepreneur, is a prized label. Like sports stars or rock stars, a handful of them with profiles and media exposure become household names. To be a business leader is in some senses to be a pin-up. It has its own celebrity.

This dichotomy between the truth about being a leader and the narrative told about leaders, is what this journal article is about. It’s a critique of ‘authentic leadership’, a management theory which suggests that there is an individual’s adherence to closely held values and beliefs is the basis for good leadership. I won’t pretend to have gotten to the essence of the article, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

One is that to have an authentic self suggests the existence of an inauthentic self. So the supremacy of one necessarily means the other has to be supressed. Which calls into question the authenticity of those qualities which make up the authentic self.

Then there’s the idea that this tension between the two requires the invention of a narrative about the authentic self. That in fact for leaders to behave in an authentic way, there has to be a story for them to project onto themselves about being a leader. As it says:

The telling of life stories is concerned with the management of the reproduction of meaning. To project oneself outwards as a leader, to position oneself within a narrative as a recognizable leader in a recognizable leader ship narrative, one must construct oneself within existing frameworks of characterizations and narratives of leader ship.

We could easy replace ‘leader’ with ‘entrepreneur’ in that quote. And that article, showing the idealised, Real Living version of the messy, stressful, high stakes game of running a small creative business, is surely one of those ‘existing frameworks of characterizations’ within which ‘one must construct oneself.’

 

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