The problems with authentic leadership: when 'authentic' just means 'nice'

Written by
Wendy Rose, global executive coach

09 Jul 2020

09 Jul 2020 • by Wendy Rose, global executive coach

Is there a danger of being 'too authentic' as a leader? Wendy Rose examines what authenticity really means.

In HR and OD circles, in leadership development and coaching, we are all encouraged to be authentic. There’s even a meme that does the rounds every so often: ‘Be yourself. Everyone is already taken’. It gets trotted out on many leadership training courses; one of those sayings that sounds profound the first time round and then ends up as a fridge magnet.   

The dictionary definition of authentic includes synonyms such as not false, genuine, true, real. Who would argue with that? It sounds great – doesn’t it?  Just be true to yourself; you’re good enough as you are. What a relief; no more changing, no more development, no more training or tweaking.   

I’ve just finished some stakeholder interviewing for a senior leader at global bank. Much of the feedback was exhorting her to be more ‘herself’. Her colleagues like her, so this doesn’t appear to be a difficulty; they just want to see more of her being ‘herself’. 

“I’ll do it my way” crooned Frank Sinatra and people nod in agreement and feel vindicated. Why is this song still one of the most popular ones to have played at funerals according to research by the Co-op Funeral Service?  

Because being true to ourselves speaks to us at a very deep level. So what’s the problem?

The first problem is that ‘authentic’ has been hijacked as an adjective to mean ‘nice’.

Authenticity is subjective

As a buzzy leadership model to aspire to – and to pay for training in (surely a paradox there?) – authentic leadership has come to mean someone who is highly emotional intelligent, open, affable, approachable, compassionate, honest and empathic. All very laudable as far as it goes.

The second problem, leading on from that hijacking, is that we might not always like what we see when people are being ‘themselves’ in an authentic way. Authenticity is totally subjective – and not always attractive.

Authentic leaders?

So Jacinda Ardern (the Prime Minister of New Zealand) receives plaudits for her authentic leadership in handling crises such as the terrorist bombing in Christchurch in March 2019 and the Covid-19 pandemic. She connects, people see her being emotionally moved, they identify with what she’s feeling. She looks wracked and sounds vulnerable. We get a sense that what she is experiencing is shared by those who are watching her. There’s mutual feeling of shock and grief. When she says ‘Our thoughts and prayers are with you’ we believe her. We’re all in this together. When most other politicians repeat this tired and bloodless phrase it’s as if they’re reading from a script.

Dominic Cummings, on the other hand, has irritated people. He was over half an hour late and showed no emotion during the No 10 Rose Garden statement, no humility, no regret for his actions during lockdown, no sense that, in retrospect he might have made different decisions.  

Whether you agree or not with what he did, there was a gulf between his state of being and the thoughts and feelings of many of those watching him.  People felt angry about that gulf. We are not all in this together. You did what I wouldn’t have done and you don’t understand why I feel angry. Who knows how his briefing might have been received had he not been half an hour late, had his voice wobbled a bit, had he looked uncertain or contrite, apologised even and asked for forgiveness or at least understanding?  I’m guessing it might have blown over. As it is, some Tory MPs have reported more emails from constituents complaining about this issue than about anything else, including Brexit.

From his detractors, President Trump receives criticism for being authentic ie he’s unfiltered, shoots from the hip, says what he’s feeling and thinking.  He’s fed up, we know about it. He doesn’t like something (or someone) he says so. No pretending, no being two faced, none of that thinking one thing and saying another that we suspect we get from other politicians. He’s being authentic – right?  

Is authenticity always a good thing?

So what’s the link to authentic leadership? Supposing Dominic Cummings and Donald Trump are being just as authentic, just as true to themselves, as Jacinda Ardern? 

If we are told that being authentic is a good thing and a quality to be valued in leadership, who are we to like the one version of authenticity and not the other, or to value one version of authenticity more highly.   

Isn’t that rather hypocritical of us and (dare I say it) even a bit inauthentic?