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Is authenticity the real deal when it comes to leadership?

Posted on by from The School of Life

We had the good fortune to attend Changeboard’s third annual Future Talent Conference this week, where one of the speakers raised the topic of authenticity in the context of good leadership. Is authenticity the key?

The speaker challenged the use of the word, noting that it is overused and has become a bit of a buzzword. This raised a lot of knowing looks and wry smiles amongst the audience.

While his challenges may be justified, at The School of Life we believe that the reason authenticity appears so freely in the leadership literature is precisely because it is such a crucial part of being a good leader. We see authenticity as a concrete attribute which we can all cultivate with the right level of personal reflection and practice. 

Sharing our vulnerabilities

Authenticity is in large part about the transparency of thoughts and feelings. In particular, it tends to be marked by a willingness to share worries, doubts, admissions of error, and even our personal weaknesses. This might feel counterintuitive, as throughout much of history, leadership has centred on strength and invincibility. Yet sharing our vulnerable moments can have a number of positive effects. People often find it easier to relate to those of us who admit to such frailties, as it reminds them that we are human too. Setting an example of authenticity and openness also encourages honesty and accountability in the wider organisational system.



Perhaps most crucially, sharing these aspects of ourselves encourages self-awareness which in turn gives people greater reason to trust us. Using the bus driver as the (often used) analogy for the leader, people are more likely to board the bus, and remain on the bus, if they think the driver is aware of their own potential blind spots. Without reassurance on this front passengers are likely to feel anxious and mistrustful, and may even try to take hold of the wheel themselves (either secretly or openly). 

Finding the right balance

But being open about these most vulnerable aspects of ourselves is far from easy. Many of us fear that by showing weakness we will be viewed as weak overall. That’s why we need to take a balanced approach and to judge carefully when to be fully transparent and when to hold back from unleashing the full force of our feelings in every situation. What we are talking about here is the skill of self-regulation (a core aspect of Daniel Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence). It is undoubtedly a difficult skill to master, in part because being too self-conscious about what we do and don’t share can itself inhibit authenticity. However, the encouraging thing is that it this balance be learned over time - through self-reflection, practice, feedback and coaching.

‘Hey, I’m just being authentic…’

There is a risk, of course, that inappropriate behaviour, things like being sarcastic, excessive complaining and putting others down - could be excused as authenticity. Leaders and organisations must defend against this false interpretation of authenticity and recognise it for what it is: an attempt to mask, deflect and disrupt. True authenticity is about legitimacy in leadership through honest relationships which are built on a foundation of openness and mutual respect. 

Knowing (and sharing) why we do what we do

Another key aspect of authenticity comes down to being clear about the personal meaning behind what we do every day, essentially why we’re motivated to get out of bed in the morning. This is less about the practical reasons (paying the bills, giving your kids a good education) and more about the personal drivers that sit behind our work. For most people, this is about how our work taps into the deepest, most sincere and talented parts of us. It is about the extent to which we strive to help or be of service to others. Our sense of purpose is usually at its strongest when we can viscerally sense, day to day, the impact of our work upon an audience. 

However, even if one is lucky enough to have a clear and present sense of purpose, authentic leadership requires us to share it with others. This too is not always easy but it is a skill which can be developed. If a leader is able to show their genuine passion for what they do day-to-day, they will have a far greater capacity to inspire others to do work that taps into their own sense of purpose. 

Yes, authenticity is the real deal

Authenticity is a complex concept that is too often used in vague or unquantifiable ways. But it is a real and very crucial aspect of leadership. Those in leadership roles and aspiring leaders can extend their influence by examining each of these concrete aspects of authentic leadership and focusing on ways of developing each one. This will come through self-reflection, self-regulation and a regular practice and feedback loop that keeps the leader constantly exploring, trialling and learning. 


Aoife  Keane

By Aoife Keane

Aoife heads up the business psychology area at The School of Life. Focused on developing the emotional health of organisations.

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