Is Authentic Leadership keeping it real?

Is Authentic Leadership keeping it real?

Authentic is defined as being “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.” There has been considerable hype and focus on authentic leadership in recent years but many Leaders remain confused about what it is and why you should pay attention to it.

A recent study reported that  80% of employees believed that authenticity improves the workplace, centered on a few key themes:


  • Improves productivity,
  • Increases performance and success,
  • Allows employees to exert less energy and time censoring or hiding. Spending less time and energy on self-monitoring freed up more time and energy for focusing on the task at hand.


Recently, I worked with a new Leader in transition from Middle Management to Senior Leadership. He was grappling with the expectations of being authentic in his new role. He was clear that being authentic was about walking the walk – where his words matched his deeds but he was uncertain about being vulnerable and really being himself. He expressed the view that it was difficult to be yourself when you didn’t always know who that self was and was challenged by the thought of being totally vulnerable in a professional but at times political environment. Raising many thought provoking and interesting ideas about authentic leadership.

Vulnerability and authenticity go hand in hand, but one of the great myths at the root of authentic leadership is that being vulnerable means being weak.


“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.”

Brene Brown – Daring Greatly


Authenticity must be accompanied by vulnerability, so that you can evolve and grow your sense of self and understand the best self you need to put forward in any situation. Authenticity is not about a rigid unwavering self that never changes. You need to be unsure, uncertain, afraid and confused to make better choices about how you move into a future self. Balance that then with being professional and you have a considerable challenge for leaders.

Authenticity as a Leader is about knowing and being yourself but equally fully understanding the impact that being yourself has on your people.

Caroline McHugh TED talk speaks about developing a persona which is not a fake or fad or about pretending but is about moving, possibility and potential. It is really your adaptive personality which is unique and authentic. Having self-awareness is key to authentic leadership but it is the awareness of how being yourself impacts on others that is the most important and often overlooked aspect of being authentic.

Authentic leadership requires a heightened understanding of how you are perceived and whether your behaviour is credible and creates trust and followership through your people. This requires trying out different aspects of your personality and having the courage to flex and change when the results are not what you expected. This also draws on the courage to be vulnerable and admitting when things are not what you want them to be.

But does the hype and the growing demand for leaders to be authentic have a downside? Herminia Ibarra certainly thinks so and believes that by being authentic you may just be conforming. Herminia posited that in this age of authentic leadership, originality is at a premium, and people perceive imitation as fake rather than flattery. The thing is, authenticity itself has become a performance — and an exercise in conformity. She cautions against conformity to one single model of leadership.

To counteract this, you need to know your core values and how not to lose sight of those core values while being many things to many people. If you are clear about what you believe and why, you will have a frame of reference for deciding how to act.

Mary Lynch

Mary is a senior consultant with over 16 years’ experience. Mary specialises in the areas of Organisational Development, Change Management, Performance Management, Leadership and Coaching.

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