Being authentic

leadership Mar 01, 2024
as a leader, authenticity is critical - advisory and mentoring

Being an “authentic leader” depends on how you define the term as the concept of Authentic Leadership is still evolving.

It’s important to recognise that employees look up to a leader who can lead, who demonstrates positive values, and who demonstrate the behaviours they want others to adopt. This impacts culture positively and increases trust and a commitment to a common cause.

On one hand and for some observers of the space, authenticity of leadership means being honest, genuine, good, inspiring, trusting, motivating employees, being self-aware, having transparency, being moral, and a basket of other fine attributes (many of which have been discussed in previous chapters).

Another view is that to be an “authentic leader” is to be real, actual, not false, not an imitation, not an actor playing multiple roles, being true to one’s own personality, values, and character. What you see is what you get.

The Human View accepts that all managers including the leader adapt their approach to different contexts, different stakeholders and to the public. That’s normal and that’s what they’re expected to do. However, the authentic leader or manager plays roles that are consistent with their standards and principles. They won’t for example, treat one customer honestly and the other fraudulently, and so on.

These two views are very different and have important implications for leaders.

The Angel View – in essence, the view that you are authentic if you demonstrate all aspects of “perfect leadership.” I call it the Angel View as only angels possess all these characteristics. This view, compared to the discussion in earlier chapters, does not add a lot of additional value for leaders.

The Human View – acknowledges that being authentic is being yourself, and this may or may not be good for the role of your leadership in you organisation.

The problem with this is that the leader’s “authentic self” may be really problematic particularly since most of us learn as we age and develop attributes through experience. Therefore, none of us are perfect to start with, and we possess attributes and characteristics that can be improved from a leadership perspective.

If the nature of the “authentic self” of a leader is being intolerant, egotistical, derogatory of those below them, racist, arrogant, misogynistic, rude, immoral, unethical, and so on, then that leader being authentic is the last thing the organisation wants or needs.

Therefore, when we speak of “authentic leadership” what we mean is “how does “being yourself” affect the organisation and what can you do as leader to better align yourself to the organisation and the organisation to yourself? Are there meaningful gaps between the authentic you and the organisation that negatively impact the organisation or you?” And this is the real challenge of authentic leadership.

As the leader, are there aspects of the “authentic you” that influences, affects, or harms, the objectives of the organisation? If so, then within you is both part of the problem and part of the solution. What can you do about it?

Conversely, are there things occurring within the organisation that confront the “real you” – your values, ethics, morals, or standards? If so, then is that affecting you in a way that harms, threatens, demeans, or stresses you? What should you do about it?

Some commentators on authentic leadership are of the view that a person cannot judge their own authenticity – it’s up to others to make that assessment. However, the way that the majority of these commentators define authenticity is by using the Angel View.

If one accepts the Human View, then reflecting on and identifying the disconnects between one’s values, ethics, morals, and principles, and comparing them with the organisation’s standards are certainly within the capability of most leaders.

It’s important to add, that it’s well and good for the leader to be “themselves” every day and live by their values, ethics and so on. However, it’s equally valuable for all employees to be able to be “themselves” too, provided it’s in harmony with the organisation’s objectives, values, and culture. This of course, has implications on HR policy, recruitment, promotion, and management.

In general, people prefer those who are authentic and true to themselves because they can understand the “real person” in the other.

Conversely, people tend to distrust those who are identifiably acting in a role or situation for their own advantage or the advantage of some other purpose.

From an organisational authenticity cultural perspective, the pressure is to:

  1. Align the leader’s authenticity with the goals of the organisation because in that context, the leader will optimise their own performance.
  2. Have all elements of the organisation align with the organisation’s goals by being clear about what personally controlled characteristics augment those goals and what hinders them.
  3. Recruit and promote only those employees who demonstrate comfort and unanimity with the organisation’s goals, values, attitudinal standards, and ethical principles.

Authenticity is not an attribute exclusive to the leader. The organisation, its board and its employees are all expected to demonstrate their authenticity and their compatibility with the organisation’s values, ethicality, morality, and principles.

There’s an old saying which claims that it’s easier to tell the truth than to tell a lie because the liar needs to remember all the lies.

Authenticity is a bit like that: if you’re always not being yourself in a variety of contexts and situations so that you can get an outcome that you think will be better regarded, then you have to remember the acts, and what you said and did, for a very long time.

That’s very hard but others will remember. This type of behaviour is why colleagues know that your “style” is to play “these games.” They won’t trust you.

It’s much easier (using the Human View definition) to just be yourself. That doesn’t mean that you will never get angry or disappointed – but those reaction will be the real you – nothing to hide.

Anyone who has been in or near leadership will tell you that leaders need to be able to adapt to context and to need. This is true, but this belief relates to tactics, strategies and so on. It doesn’t relate to a person’s true self. Leaders don’t need to change from being ethical to being unethical, from moral to immoral, from compassionate to brutal, and so on.

The lesson here is to be careful with the way others use language and the way you interpret and apply whatever they’re saying.

Another important dimension is that authenticity is not fixed for all time. We as humans, develop, evolve, and mature over time as a result of context, opportunity, experience, and age.

Therefore, your authentic self at 18-years of age is not the same as your authentic self at 25, 45 or any other age.

This is important because when you assess a situation (or employer or an organisational culture) as being compatible or not with your “authentic self”, then reflect hard and seriously because you may have changed since you last reflected on all the things that were important to you. You may have nuanced some issues, adopted new issues, or even dropped some issues. After all, you are only human.

Finally, when we say, “be true to yourself”, we don’t mean never adapt to a situation, context, or people.

Different contexts need different approaches and different outcomes. You may be, by the nature of the context, expected to tread a fine line between your values and what has been discussed and agreed. You need to decide (normally after the fact) how you will approach the fine line issue, especially if it is ultimately crossed.

However, that you need to adapt to the needs of a situation is an attribute of virtually every leader’s role. Where you will find it hard to adapt is where the issue or challenge forces you to contemplate crossing the red line you have of your values, your ethics, your morality, and your principles.

Knowing your own red line is a critical requirement prerequisite of authentic leadership.


Steps to enhance an organisation’s authenticity are subject to a similar set of actions but should be undertaken by an independent party. The application of an enhancement strategy is probably using a staff training program.

  • Know yourself – reflect on the things that you hold dear, stand for, triggers your emotions, particularly your values, ethics, morals, and principles. Write these down in your notebook.
  • Why are these things important to you?
  • For each element you have noted, define its red line as it applies to you.
  • Review the organisation, its parts, and its cultural values, ethics, morality, and principles. Identify all aspects that do or might conflict with your red lines.
  • Based on #4, list all areas of current or possible conflict.
  • Of the list in #5, note next to each potential conflict area, the probability of that event occurring.
  • Confirm that the highest probability items of potential conflict are meaningful red-line issues for you.
  • Reflect on each item on the list and consider:
    1. How will you know if/when it has occurred?
    2. What will be your response to such an event?
    3. How will you handle your response so that it is a constructive response?
    4. How will you deal with those who have caused or triggered the event?
    5. If there anything that you can do now within the organisation to prevent such an event occurring?
  • Do you believe that your values, ethics, morals, and principles make you a better leader, are neutral to your effectiveness, or harms or makes your effectiveness more difficult?
  • If it makes your leadership more difficult, then what are the things that you feel are compromising your effectiveness?
  • What will you do about it?
  • Do you believe that the organisation will be enhanced if it adopts your values, ethics, morals, and principles?
  • If yes, then what strategy can you adopt to create such an environment?

As you continue your authentic leadership, here are some of the things that might help, depending on your context.

  • Don’t be hesitant to tell the story of your journey – both good and bad episodes.
  • Walk to talk – and when you veer from the talk, then make sure you are able to communicate it persuasively.
  • Practice dynamic and skilful communications. Practice explaining those things that you stand for, that are important to you.
  • If you struggle with any of things listed in this chapter, then consider getting yourself a confidential mentor.


If you have or suspect negative responses to these issues, then your leadership or the leadership of others may be compromised.

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We’re proud to advise that the authors of this piece are Advisory & Mentoring directors.

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