4 min read

What Authenticity Means In Leadership

what authenticity means

What does it mean to be an authentic leader? The answer to this question couldn't be more relevant right now.

Unfortunately, "authenticity" has become a buzzword. So when you ask that question (or Google "authenticity quotes") you're likely to get answers like this:

  • "There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a person being themselves."
  • "Authentic leadership is leading adaptively from your core... a whole body experience."
  • “Confidence is knowing who you are and not changing it a bit."

I recognize that the above authors want to inspire people to be good. Unfortunately, the pithiness of the above quotes can blind us from the fact that they are not 100% accurate.

Let's start with an extreme example of the problem with the first quote:

What's more "beautiful?" Seeing Adoph Hitler be himself? Or seeing Winston Churchill pretend to be in a good mood?

The unfortunate truth is that seeing someone "be themselves" is only a good experience if they are good. Treating people kindly even though you don't feel great miiight just be better for everyone than treating them bad because you feel bad. If your leader is a total jerk, then you might actually want them to hold back, if you want to keep things from getting destructive.

Next: "leading adaptively from your core" and "whole body" leadership. In other words, engage your abs; leaders lead from a plank position. I If what these quotes are getting at is that being authentic is acting in alignment with how you feel, then this is only good advice if your feelings are always an accurate reflection of reality.

That is usually not the case for human beings.

Relying on gut feeling leads to bad and ego-driven decisions. Treating your physical or emotional reactions as gospel leads to using logic to justify how you feel, instead of the other way around.

Finally, whereas knowing who you are is good (and ancient) advice, "not changing it a bit" is terrible advice.

We—and especially leaders—need to continually grow and change if we want to reach our potential, help other people, and make the world better. Research is persuasive that one of the top skills that leaders need tomorrow is intellectual humility—which is the exact opposite of "not changing a bit."

As you can tell, I'm picking on a few egregious examples of where pithy quotes by well-meaning people go wrong if taken at face value. But herein lies the trouble with our buzz-worship of authenticity:

Like other great virtues, authenticity on its own is neither admirable nor productive.

Aristotle and his comrades thought of virtues in a decidedly non-buzzwordy way. The Ancient Greeks taught that to be truly good, a virtuous trait needed to be tempered by wisdom. Taken to an extreme, noble qualities often become vices.

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Courage is good, for example, unless it becomes recklessness. It shouldn't be thought of as "noble" to go out and get yourself killed and leave your three kids as orphans—just because it's brave to go out to battle against big odds. Wisdom means weighing the situation and deciding when it's a good idea to show courage (and when it might be more courageous to not rush out to battle).

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I think we ought to think of authenticity in a similar way. It's a virtue, but only when tempered with thoughtfulness.

To get at how to actually do that, let's strip away some of the fluff and get to the core of authenticity itself.

So what is authenticity?

I find it helpful to think of authenticity in terms of its opposite: fakeness.

Something that is authentic is something that is not fake.

So being authentic as a person, means not being fake. And what does that mean in practical terms? It means that when you say something, you mean it. It means that what you say and what you do line up.

Given this definition, I like to substitute the word "congruence" any time I think of the application of authenticity. Am I being congruent in what I say and think and do?

Asking yourself this question periodically is one of the simple things we can do to keep growing. It ties into my favorite authenticity-promoter, Brene Brown's advice when she says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest."

So far so good, but herein lies the trap too many humans fall into:

Often times, what we feel and what we think are out of alignment.

This is where so many cognitive distortions and biases come from. "I think the right thing to do is X. But it feels scary, so maybe I'll find an excuse not to do it." Or, "I feel angry, so I'm going to search for reasons why I should be, dammit!" Both of those thought processes could be useful—as humans have feelings for a reason—but they can lead to bad decisions if the emotion is not tempered by thoughtfulness.

In other words, if our goal is only to be "authentic," then we'll be likely to focus on finding balance between our feelings and our thinking, rather than finding truth.

Being wise, on the other hand, means using our feelings as a trigger for us to stop and take time to think, and then to make a choice. (The key word in the Brene Brown quote above is, in fact, "choice.")

To be clear, I'm not saying that we should say "no" to authenticity. Not at all. Just because recklessness is bad doesn't mean we should say no to "courage."

What I'm saying is this:

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Say "yes" to Congruence, and say "no" to Knee-Jerk Action

Truth is, we generally like people who are congruent—who what you see is what you get. And it's certainly better in a lot of cases than dealing with someone who's fake.

Just because what you see is what you get, doesn't mean that you will like it. And too many people use "I'm being authentic" as an excuse not to think—or perhaps worse, not to be charitable.

If we're talking about defeating an enemy, then yes, knowing that they are authentic is going to be helpful in planning a strategy against them. But honestly, how much of what we're trying to do—especially in business—really is about defeating people versus collaborating with people? Would you really rather destroy your boss than figure out how to work with them better?

If we're talking about authenticity in leadership, then we shouldn't ever talk about congruence without also talking about context:

  • Giving the same honest feedback to a teammate in front of a group of people versus giving it in private could mean the difference between destroying a relationship... or building a trusting one.
  • Speaking your truth in a way that gets people defensive versus delivering it gracefully and nonviolently can mean the difference between creating divisions... or building understanding and empathy.
  • Saying what you authentically think the instant you think it versus taking time to present it persuasively could mean the difference between causing a panic... or creating a plan everyone can buy into.

In other words, just because you think something doesn't mean that it's wise to express that the moment you think it. In part because if you don't take time to examine your thoughts, you may "express" yourself into a corner. And in part because truth without kindness is not wisdom.

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Sure, we might prefer to deal with someone who is authentically a jerk versus someone who we can never be sure if they're telling the truth.

But then again, can you really trust someone who isn't benevolent? Research on the psychology of trust says no.