Like most of my American communication friends, I cling hard to "authenticity" as the most important element of compelling leadership. But if something is 100 percent true, we wouldn't have to cling so hard.
For instance, one thing we know about authenticity is: A speech on a subject you feel personally invested in will be a better speech than one on a subject you don't own. I've given both kinds of speeches, and I know it's true. When I speak on strategic executive communication, I am knowledgeable. When I speak on beautiful speeches, I am me—and I find audiences like me more than they like knowledge.
That's well and good for me and a lot of other "leaders," who can to a great extent pick and choose what they talk about. Even a CEO can focus her talks in areas where she's particularly strong—if she's an engineer, she speaks mostly on technology; if she's a manager, she talks about the corporate culture. (I encourage this, in my knowledgeable talks on strategic executive communication.)
But here we have Bernie Sanders, who speaks enthusiastically and articulately about economics and social justice. But as Chris Cilizza pointed out in yesterday's Washington Post, we've barely heard from him since the attacks in Paris last month. Why? Cuz the personal connection that he has for domestic economics, he doesn't have for foreign affairs.
I've seen this in President Obama a number of times—and maybe it's part of what so many people complained about during his lackluster Oval Office speech Sunday night. The first time I saw it clearly was at a shared press conference years ago with the Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Karzai was talking, and Obama had a look on his face that said, "Bitch, I ran for president on a social justice and opportunity ticket, and here I am a couple years into my presidency playing polite political grab-ass with a bastard in a long green dress who's the puppet-head of a corrupt country in a morass of a region where 'yes we can,' is more like, 'I'm not holding my breath.'"
A president can't be on his game every day, but whatever seems urgent to the country must appear to be urgent to him—emotionally, as well as intellectually. That's a lot to ask, and maybe it's one of the hardest things we do ask of a president. As authentic as you are, Bernie Sanders, I don't think you've got it. And Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood actor, had it in all over.
Let's meet back here tomorrow and talk about Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who criticizes the "leadership industry" for propagating a psychologically pleasing myth that authenticity is all we need.