Authentic Leadership and Being Authentic - What does that mean anyway?

Authentic Leadership and Being Authentic – What does that mean anyway?

Being authentic

Being authentic

The leadership, management and personal development literature and lore is repleat with appeals and even demands for authenticity. Management and leadership courses, consultants and coaches extol the virtues of how to be authentic and genuine. It sounds good but what are we really asking for here? What do we actually mean by being authentic?

Earlier this week I was having a conversation with a colleague about what authentic actually means and what it entails.


The dictionary usually cites synonyms like being genuine, of thy true self or something similar.


Is Donald Trump being authentic?


But what if thy true self is a liar and a skank?


What if I am at heart just a cheat and a thief?

Being a liar


Do you think Donald Trump isn’t being authentic or true to himself for example?


Given that it has been shown that there are a greater preponderance of narcissism and psychopathic tendencies in corporate leadership positions compared the rest of organisational populations (1), do you really want these people to be authentic?

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Be true to thy self – really?


And if I am to be extolled to be my true self, what is that anyway?


Who am I and come to that who are you?


I mean not your name or a role like mother, father, manager etc but who are you really?


I can convince myself that I am a beautiful soul who comes from a place of kindness and awareness, until that is, someone pisses me off. Then what? If I shout and swear at the driver that just cut in front of me am I being genuine and authentic? Is that who I am?


Beautiful Soul


Who am I?


There appears to be the idea that we can actually get to who we are really, that there is some little us inside that is honourable, benevolent, and stable. A real us that is is readily discernible and describable.


This as opposed to something that actually appears to be infinitely complex, complicated, often confused, eminently contradictory and forever changing. How do you actually describe something that is shifting, morphing and changeable? (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle).


Maybe being authentic means just that, changeable, given to whim and contradictory. I am not sure that’s what people have in mind when they think of authentic.


Because if I am to be authentic to the latter, I am not sure that is much of a recipe for a great leader, parent or much else actually.


What if I am damaged?

This of course is a question that is as old as the history of humans, and certainly the ancient Greeks promoted the philosophy of ‘being true to oneself’ (2). However,  what, if at base, I am an insecure and damaged individual? Should I then be true to myself? Additionally if I act in accordance to who I am and it is at the expense of others, is that okay?


What if I want that beautiful person; is it being authentic to kidnap them and keep them for myself and my own pleasure?


Can I kidnap someone and still be authentic?




There appears to be an assumption with the idea of being authentic, that at heart, every human being:


  1. Is benevolent
  2. Can readily access who they are
  3. Can describe who they are
  4. That who they are is stable, and
  5. Predicable


Are these assumptions true? For all of us?


You see I am not too sure that when people extoll the virtues of being authentic or being an authentic leader, they have actually thought it through.


Being better - is it enough?

Is just being better enough?


Rather, and I think a more useful construct not just for leaders, but for anyone is to learn to be a better person.


However,this, I think is a little too general. Because without a plan, being a better person is somewhat aimless. Where do you start? What do you focus on?

The process of improvement, being a better person is a process that is:

  1. Incremental
  2. Continual
  3. Conscious
  4. Habituated- challenging, developing and redeveloping habits
  5. Action oriented- it’s what you do, not what you intend, and
  6. Learning oriented


Ok maybe a different being authentic then


There is however, one use of the word authentic that may be more useful in the context – the quality of being trustworthy. So rather than being like who we really are, it appears we often use the term authentic to mean being true or trustworthy to others (and ourselves).  So what does this mean?


Being trustworthy


Firstly it means being truthful with yourself.

But what does that mean?

It probably means understanding your own emotions, beliefs, biases, shortcomings, mistakes, humanity, strengths and being accurate and honest with these. Ahhh maybe now we are getting closer to understanding what being authentic is. It is a bit more than just being trustworthy and honest.

Being authentic with yourself is often not easy. We often don’t want to face what we are like, how we behave and why we behave and think like we do. We often don’t take the time to explore and think about what we are really like. Notice I am not saying “who we are”.


Hmm this is looking a lot like learning to be better person….


Maybe that’s what we mean by ‘authentic’


Maybe what we actually mean by authentic and genuine is someone who is conscious, understands their own values and biases, is striving to be a better person, is humble (an interesting value), is thoughtful, honest (but in the way we want them to be honest), is pro societal in that they are there for the good of humanity and wider considerations like the planet, is coherent, is changing but not too fast and that the change is ‘good’ change, and that they are open about this, and that they understand the effect and impact they are having, and have empathy ….


That’s a lot of stuff for one word to mean.


Just a thought.




(1) Gudmundsson, A., & Southey, G. (2011). Leadership and the rise of the corporate psychopath: What can business schools do about the ‘snakes inside’?. E-Journal of Social & Behavioural Research in Business, 2(2), 18-27.


(2) Harter, S. 2002. Authenticity. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology:382-394. London: Oxford University Press.


How to know that someone is going to act unethically

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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page

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