- IMD Business School

The death of dignity: Do we really want our leaders to be truly authentic?

IMD Professor Jennifer Jordan on dignity and leadership
3 min.
November 2016

In reflecting back on the last 18 months of the U.S. election, I experienced many emotions: sadness, anger, pity, confusion. But one thing that stuck with me most was a change that I have seen gradually building over the last few decades: the death of dignity. What do I mean by dignity? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, dignity is defined as behaving in a way that expresses self-control and elicits respect from others.

Where does this gradual decline come from? I would partly attribute it to the growth in popularity of “authentic leadership” – a leadership style that calls for leaders to be themselves, open, and transparent. Yes, there are undoubtedly many positive attributes that accompany the concept of authentic leadership – including being ethical and honest. But do we really want our leaders to be authentic all the time? I don’t believe so. Sometimes, we want our leaders to preserve a sense of stability, even when they are feeling unstable. A sense of calm, even when they are feeling stressed. A sense of decorum, even when they feel like saying something crass. A sense of self-restraint, even when they feel like acting uncivilized.

Another cause is the vast increase in transparency throughout the public sphere. My grandmother grew up in Depression-era America. She often reminisces about how the American people were completely unaware that their president, Franklin Roosevelt, was paralyzed from the waist down. He could not walk on his own and spent most of his time in a wheelchair. A half-century later, the American public found out that their president, Bill Clinton, wore briefs instead of boxers. The change in transparency and the level of intimacy in what we know about our leaders (at least within the West) is astonishing.

Am I advocating for society to go back to the days where leaders had to disguise their disabilities in order to be supported by their constituents? Where leaders had to hide their true selves in order to be accepted by society? Absolutely not; this extreme is also ridiculous. Am I suggesting that leaders become stiff as a board, never crack jokes, and hide all their feelings, opinions, and beliefs? No. What I am advocating for is some return of the decorum and respect that I believe should accompany people in leadership positions. Political opinions aside, I think that most of the world would agree that Barack Obama was the epitome of modern dignity – cracking jokes when appropriate and not being afraid to show the public his “softer side” – while still maintaining a respectful and elegant persona.

The line between inaccessible and inappropriately exposed is often a thin one to walk. But great leaders are those who are keenly self-aware and so perceptive of their social environment that they can successfully capture the balance. I also believe that great leaders are those who want to maintain the respect and reverence that their privileged positions deserve.

Jennifer Jordan is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. She teaches on the Orchestrating Winning Performance and Building on Talent programs.


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