Is ‘authentic’ leadership for real?


If you are into leadership development you will be familiar with the phrase ‘authentic leadership’. Essentially this is leading whilst accepting your shortcomings and striving to improve, whilst at the same time being true to the real you.  Wikipedia defines authentic leadership like this:

“Authentic leadership is an approach to leadership that emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers which value their input and are built on an ethical foundation. Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness.”

Hmm, what stands out for me is this concept of ‘honest relationships’ plus ‘truthful self-concepts’. A common stereotype of the ‘authentic leader’ is someone who is consistently a good, fair and reliable person. They may be flawed in some respects and willing to admit to these failings and work with self-awareness to address them. This version of the authentic leader is someone with a high level of emotional intelligence who is not a game-player: a really good style of leadership, which is why so many people want to be associated with it. Unfortunately, the understanding of authentic leadership is commonly confused.

Thus, ‘authenticity’ is a metaphor for someone with a personality, someone who does not hide their imperfections. The label enables people to ‘be themselves’, with the assumption that everyone will warm to them which, of course, makes them appear more like everyone else. The cult of personality. In reality, many of the leaders I meet who give themselves this label, think of themselves as pretty much perfect: they are ‘pseudo-authentic’. I see two main problems with this.

Pseudo-authentic people, in my experience, don’t cope well with not being admired. If people don’t respond, they will change to appease the audience. This means that they craft their behaviour to meet different expectations at different times: they are, at best, diplomatic rather than authentic. There is nothing wrong with being diplomatic but, in my view, there is something wrong with claiming authenticity when it is not genuine.

The second key issue for me is the ‘get out of jail’ card that ‘authentic leadership’ offers. It seems that more and more people balance a lack of skills and effort with their positive self-image of being ‘authentic’. Authentic but not very good at the job. This may be acceptable as long as it is a temporary reality; whilst someone learns and adapts to the rigours of leaders. It is not acceptable if it is a permanent reality.

The issue for me is a linguistic, as well as a behavioural one. To label a flexible, learning style of leadership as ‘authentic’, a word that is associated with consistency and lack of deviation in most people’s minds is confusing. We needs leaders who are authentic, skilled and not fake some of the time. Whilst the concept shares much with the current cult of authenticity, this brand of leadership will need a different name.

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I'm a management and business consultant who is interested in how people and organisations thrive in an increasingly complex world. I work with organisations and individuals via The themes I like to focus on centre on include growth through people, communication and wellbeing. I am an expert on using walking as a development tool and appreciating how to preserve and enhance the role of people alongside technology. I like to write on topics that make people think again about how we live, work, behave and communicate.


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