When I was working on the Sustained Leadership WBS book I had a lot of discussions with people about my approach since it was and is the only effort to present leadership development in a project management fashion. This inevitably led to a discussion about the 229 identified elements of leadership and the definitions that go with each element. I would explain what a Work Breakdown Structure is and how it requires that the elements be defined. (See chapter 2 of Sustained Leadership WBS for the full explanation.)
In my illustration of why leadership lexicon needed better development, I would often use sincerity as the term to illustrate my point. I would say, “Can we all agree that a leader should be sincere?” and in every case the audience would say, “Certainly. Of course, a leader must be sincere.” Then I would make it harder and ask, “So tell me: What does that word mean? What does it mean to be ’sincere’?” Sadly the most common answer was, “Well, you know…… sincere!” You cannot define a word with that word and the struggle to do so illustrates the difficulty of creating a universal definition for many leadership concepts.
Definitions Provide Clarity
Sincerity was not the only term that defied clear definition. Several leadership terms are either considered too “soft” or are used very differently within the literature. Some would debate certain terms without ever realizing that they were advocating two different concepts that could exist simultaneously. It is painfully apparent that we are suffering from a failure in our agreement on the proper definition of terms. We have no leadership lexicon.
In Sustained Leadership WBS I used the following definition:
WBS Dictionary: George Burns is quoted as saying, cynically, “Sincerity—if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The word was more popular in the era of handwritten letters where everyone ended with “Sincerely” or “Sincerely Yours.” Many learned in grade school, when cursive letter writing was still taught, what that word meant. Unfortunately, today it has become a perfunctory statement with little meaning. Sincerity suggests that what is being conveyed is free from deceit or hypocrisy. It reflects an honesty of expression with warmth and genuine caring about the person. It is intended to be a relationship-facilitating term. It suggests a direct forthrightness to what is being communicated without duplicity, prevarication, or hidden agenda (5.2.7).
Everybody “Knows” What it Means
Sincerity is one of those words that everyone seems to intrinsically know, yet when we are pressed for a definition it seems to be such a unique concept; almost a priori in nature. It must simply be accepted as if there were a universal understanding throughout all of mankind. That is a false assertion. George Burns’ quote is funny because sincerity cannot be faked – at least not for long. You will be found out and whatever trust you thought you might have garnered vanishes like steam from a boiling pot. Sincerity has the concept of “realness” buried within it.
Saying Sincerely Insincerely
We signed letters with the word “sincerely” or the phrase “sincerely yours” for a century or more. Most of us learned that in grade school or when our mothers made us write thank you notes to grandparents and other relatives. Strangers, too. They all got a “sincerely.” We did not always understand why a “thank you” was really that important, and we certainly did not understand why anyone would question our sincerity. If we even understood what that concept meant at such a young age. It was, nonetheless drilled into us more by rote than by real understanding. More recently we have used “Yours Faithfully” and “Yours Truly” (or “Very Truly Yours”) as if those provided any greater clarity to our closing.
Sincerely or Authentically?
One of the many generational differences is our choice of words for some foundational concepts. Today’s generation will often ask, “What is your ‘why’?” Anyone born earlier would simply ask, “What is your vision?” Similarly, we find the word “authentic” being substituted for “real,” “true,” or “genuine.” Older generations seem to distrust the word “authentic” because it covers a broader range of concepts that can invite deception. When a person is being real, true, or genuine they may be being exactly who they are. Thus, a chronic liar is authentic to their true self as they continuously lie. That may be authentically them, but it is not being sincere and does nothing to engender trust or build a positive relationship.
Socially Acceptable Insincerity
It is socially acceptable today to greet people with a, “Hey! How’s it going?” Or “Hey! What’s up?” There is of course, no antecedent to the “it” in the first example and if someone were to stop and start explaining all of their life’s current issues, we would brand them as weird and avoid them in the future. Worse, such a person might begin to list many things that are “up.” The sky, prices, helium balloons, and an amazing list of other mundane irrelevant things. The dryness of this humor escapes some and again they place such people in the “avoid” column. Our greeting was not “sincere” because we really do not care how things are going or what things might be up as compared to down. It is simply a socially acceptable greeting that is understood to be insincere beyond the social acceptability of extending a greeting.
Sincerely Defined Sincerely
Sincerity should facilitate and encourage relationships. It must be free of deceit and hypocrisy. It is honest. It reflects warmth, genuine caring, and empathy toward another. Sincerity is direct, forthright, and is free of duplicity, hyperbole, or any hidden agenda. When expressed in this way, it will work toward building a relationship and establishing trust.
An Appeal for a Common Leadership Lexicon
Several early reviewers of Sustained Leadership WBS commented on the fact that it provides useful definitions of many leadership terms. Without a common lexicon, it is impossible to discuss any topic. Each discipline has a unique jargon and students of the discipline must become familiar with that jargon. Consider the concept of sincerity. How do you know it when you see it? How do you demonstrate it in your actions? The sustained leader is sincere. Be that leader.
This material is derived from the book Sustained Leadership WBS and is found in section 18.104.22.168, Sincerity. Buy Sustained Leadership WBS here.
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