Authentic leadership – fine in theory but what about in practice?

What does it mean to be an ‘authentic’ leader?

Authenticity has become well established as one of the central ideas in leadership development. The guidance to help inspire and engage other people is clear – be yourself, stay true to your values, be transparent, show some vulnerability.

But how straightforward are these calls to action in reality? What happens when our natural style is not well suited to the organisational culture in which we’re working? Or when admitting to some of our most important weaknesses might seriously undermine our credibility and influence with others?

Being yourself is an intriguing concept. For a start, which self are we talking about? When you think about the different relationships you have with the people in your life, I’m sure, like me, you show up in different ways at different times. My role as a dad, as a friend or as a work colleague has a significant bearing on my attitude and behaviour at any given point in time.

Is there some form of ‘core’ self that underpins who we are and holds the various parts of us together? I guess there must be otherwise we would be unrecognisable from one moment to the next! The nature of this deeper self manifests itself in some central values and personality traits that tend to drive how we act and react to the situations we find ourselves in.

But here comes the next challenge. Are all these traits positive and ones we can be proud of? Unfortunately not, and it’s certainly not helpful to interpret authenticity as a license to abandon all self-restraint and give free reign to our least admirable qualities.

Perhaps a more relevant idea, therefore, is that of our ‘best’ self. If we can develop the self-awareness and control to bring the best parts of who we are as individuals to situations more of the time, that sounds like a useful step forward. Perhaps we could listen more generously and empathetically to what other people are saying, rather than jumping in too quickly to assert our own opinions. Or we could consciously seek out the positive opportunities in difficult situations, instead of getting caught up in the potential downsides and letting our fears get the better of us.

However, might there be a risk of even this being seen as inauthentic – of us putting on a show to look good and holding back our true underlying motivations and behavioural style? Not necessarily, in my view, as long as these best aspects of our selves are genuine and reflect in some way what we truly believe and feel. We also have to accept that trying to do this consistently is a struggle and one we will inevitably fall short on from time to time. Embracing this challenge and being open about it with others can help. Showing some vulnerability about our weaknesses can also be very powerful, not least because it engages other people in helping us overcome them.

But again there are pitfalls. Admitting to our faults has to be done judiciously. People respond well to a leader that comes clean about some of their unhelpful characteristics, but less so to one who lacks self-confidence or one with attributes they cannot respect. There are some leadership derailers that are undoubtedly best left unadvertised and worked on privately behind the scenes – selfishness, arrogance and envy are a few that spring to mind.

One perspective I’ve found useful is that of Graham Lee, a leadership coach and author who emphasises the critical importance of framing our understanding of leadership authenticity in the context of the organisations we work for. He maintains that being an ‘authentic’ leader requires reconciling our attempts to be ourselves, with our attempts to attune ourselves socially with our colleagues.

He highlights two other, less desirable states of leadership. ‘Compliant’ leaders are ones who bend too much to social demands, subjugating their personal values and beliefs to those prevalent within their organisations. ‘Defiant’ leaders, on the other hand, stand up for themselves and their beliefs, but in a defensive or adversarial style that reduces their social and organisational influence.

In extreme situations, attaining the preferable middle path of authenticity may require us to leave an organisation in order to find another whose culture better reflects our own personal values and style. But in most cases, the secret to success lies in building the self and social awareness to integrate the best of ourselves with the social norms we encounter.

The renowned leadership thinker Warren Bennis once said that “becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and also that difficult.” The goal of authenticity might well be a challenging one to pin down and reach in practice, but for the sake of both ourselves and the people that know us, it certainly seems like one worth striving for.