Spaghetti vs. Spaghetti-Os


Recently, I was talking to a CFO about changing the (poor) culture of his team and the 800 employees who work for him. I shared that 71 percent of employees in his finance department said the company was not a great place to work. There are other indicators that his workplace is impacting people: high turnover, low performance, and lots of sick days. His response was, “Well, I only have an hour a week to think about culture, and I do that on Thursday afternoons.” Not the answer his staff was looking for.

We know that the behavior of leadership has a huge influence on a company’s culture (and culture drives business performance). In the last 10 years or so, there has been a movement to encourage leaders to be more “authentic.” Authentic leaders can create better cultures and therefore better results on key metrics like profitability, revenue, turnover, absenteeism, safety, etc.

Authentic leadership is an approach to leadership that emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy on an ethical foundation through honest relationships with followers that value his or her input. Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness.[1]

But the problem with authenticity is that it sometimes feels…inauthentic. It gets confused with “being nice” or “faking it until you make it.” It feels like a no-win cycle: you want to be authentic by building a good relationship with your employees, so you force yourself into weird relationship-building conversations, which then come across as insincere, awkward, and generally ineffective. Basically, it will have the opposite of the intended result.

To understand authentic leadership, think of the difference between spaghetti and Spaghetti-Os. While both are variations of the same thing (pasta and sauce), only one is truly authentic. Spaghetti is what it is. Spaghetti-Os, on the other hand, is trying to be spaghetti but it never will be. Despite representing itself as spaghetti and setting an expectation to be spaghetti-like, at the end of the day it is comical facsimile that only highlights the contrast between itself and the good stuff.


Authentic leadership is surprisingly similar. By being yourself (i.e., spaghetti), you become more effective. The more you try to be something you’re not (i.e., Spaghetti-Os), the more inauthentic you come across.

What are the telltale signs of authentic leaders?

  • They know themselves and are comfortable in their own skin. They understand their values and use them to guide their decisions and actions.
  • They say what they mean, and they mean what they say. You can count on the fact that they won’t talk out of both sides of their mouth.
  • They are open. They aren’t afraid to reveal some of their weaknesses because they already know they have considerable strengths.
  • They are curious. They ask a lot of questions without assuming they know the answers. They’re willing to be surprised.
  • They don’t conform. They are consistently themselves. There is very little variation in how they interact with people regardless of who they’re talking to.

So, next time you sit down to lunch with your employees to get to know them, order yourself some spaghetti.


About Author

Paul Thallner is CEO and Founder of High Peaks Group, a U.S.-based consulting firm that helps leaders and organizations tackle the tough people challenges in order to accelerate business performance.

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