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Authentic Leadership Sounds Nice … but Doesn’t Mean Anything Until You Define It


Authentic Leadership Sounds Nice … but Doesn’t Mean Anything Until You Define It

One of the biggest challenges I have as an executive coach is working with people who simply take complex issues at face value.  We are moving so quickly in our daily lives that we don’t take the time to pause and delve deeper into something to truly understand issues, garner effective meaning and compose our proper reaction.

A perfect example of this is authenticity. You can’t open any business publication or website today that isn’t talking about “authenticity” as a core aspect of leadership. It’s a buzzword of the tallest order, and like most other buzzwords or items enjoying popularity – everyone is suddenly an expert and, much too often, advice on them is misguided. Competencies like authenticity aren’t born of advice-laden articles; they are highly personal and specific, worked on, developed and incorporated by individuals as their own over time. Development of these competencies isn’t as easy as reading an article – but what worth doing really is?

Authenticity, when it comes to leadership, isn’t defined by you.

Knowing your values and keeping your compass pointing north is essential to being a leader – there is no denying that. It’s what drives good decision making, and it helps leaders sleep at night. However, the very definition of being a leader requires other people to rally behind you. Just as important as finding the values important to you is how other people see those values as they relate to you.

Henri Rousseau, the French painter, once said “inauthenticity is defined by external forces.” It’s not enough to state “these are my ideals, these are my values, and what I do is authentic to them.” This is the great paradox of authentic leadership. Your external forces – your audience, followers, etc. – need to believe you. And doing anything unnatural, even simple gestures or language, will cloud your message. You could be stating unequivocal truths and responding in ways true to your ideals, but if people don’t believe you, then it doesn’t matter.


What is authentic actually changes

Authenticity is dynamic – which means it changes from person to person. And whether you are viewed as an authentic individual changes with each conversation you have. You can say the exact same thing to two different people and they will walk away with different impressions due to context, history, and basic attitudes of the day.

One of the issues that many leaders face is the need to be everything to everyone. In order to do that, an individual leader needs to align their values with the most effective way to communicate to their separate followers and audiences.

In 2008, when the economy was collapsing, I worked with many executives who had to align their messaging for three audiences – clients, shareholders and employees. It was the same message, however slightly tailored to different groups. Those executives that could adjust to each audience were successful. Those that could not became, in essence, victims of a down economy.

What we think of as our “authentic” self is actually our “ideal” self

In general – our perception of ourselves is wrong. We may think we are the best dancer on the floor, but Seinfeld’s Elaine would disagree. When we think of what it means to be our “authentic” self, we are actually imagining what our “ideal” self is. Our perception of ourselves gives extra weight to our “intentions,” not just our actions. And our intentions have zero weighting on how we are perceived by others.

Authenticity is an important component to leadership. We know this. However, the attributes related to authenticity, and its definition, is going to be different for each leader. There are steps needed to define what is authentic for you, as perceived by your audience. This takes work. First, you need to find out the values intrinsic to you (honestly). Second, you need to compare this to how other people view you. This takes feedback. Third, you need define the gap. List out who you want to be. What characteristics does that person have that you admire? How do you get there? By defining these three components, you’ll be on your way to establishing credibility as an authentic leader.

“Overall progress is not judged by the person making the change but by those that view the change.” (“The Art and Practice of Leadership Coaching”: Page 49)

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