In this post we take a closer look at authentic leadership. It sounds like a complete no-brainer – something that every leader should strive towards all the time. Consequently, authentic leadership has become a perennial buzzword in the field of leadership development, with an array of experts, best-selling books and training courses all telling us how to become more authentic leaders.

However, as we strive to become more authentic, there is a hidden, darker side that we might not be aware of. In some cases, authentic leadership can actually be bad leadership. In this blog, we explore why truly authentic behaviour may not be the key to effective leadership after all.

Authentic leadership defined

The term itself was first coined by Bill George, Professor at Harvard Business School, and was the title of his international best-selling book Authentic Leadership (2003) [1]. George says that authenticity in a leadership role means:

“The person must be genuine – a true reflection of their own core beliefs and values and not a replica of someone else’s leadership persona.”

More recently, in her book Bring Your Human to Work, best-selling author Erica Keswin highlights the need for leaders to honour fundamental human traits if they want to lead successfully [2]. Authenticity is a critically important core trait, along with openness and basic politeness.

The lure of authentic leadership

At their best, authentic leaders can have a powerful and positive impact upon their organisations. What’s more, research shows that employees crave authenticity. According to Harvard Business Review, 75% of employees want to see more authenticity in the workplace [3]. The benefits that authentic leaders can bring to their organisations are certainly impressive. Authentic leaders can: [4]

  • Inspire and motivate employees
  • Build a culture of openness and trust
  • Boost performance and increase productivity
  • Enhance employee engagement and well-being
  • Uphold moral and ethical standards

Given the lure of these benefits, the drive to achieve authenticity is strong.

The dark side

However, for all that is said and written about the benefits of authentic leadership for individuals and organisations, leaders face an inherent dilemma. If authentic means being real and true to yourself, just how authentic should leaders actually be? Does this give leaders carte blanche to ‘let it all hang out’?

CommsMasters Tip: Our advice is that being authentic doesn’t mean you simply let all your thoughts, feelings and emotions out.

When a leader shares too much this can have a profoundly counter-productive impact. Being authentic doesn’t mean you need to tell your team about all the woes you face. These might include:

  • Dealing with a difficult CEO
  • Coping with a team that has messed up
  • A lack of faith in the latest HR, IT, or Marketing initiative

If you’re annoyed, upset or angry when things go wrong, being authentic doesn’t mean venting your opinions openly without any filter.

In these, and many other situations, sometimes authentic leadership isn’t so good at all.

Appropriate authenticity

At CommsMasters, we work with leaders across many different organisations. What we find is that the most successful leaders demonstrate appropriate authenticity. They are highly self-aware, and they remain genuine in terms of what they share and how they share it, but with one important caveat. They manage their responses because they know that authenticity doesn’t mean sharing everything. Sharing everything can damage relationships, erode trust and undermine people’s confidence in you and your ability to lead.

So how can you be appropriately authentic?

CommsMasters Tip: Our view is that authenticity needs to be carefully balanced with a level of respect for the leadership role and the needs of others in your organisation.

Leaders who recognise this and tailor their behaviour accordingly will reap rewards.

Five questions for appropriate authenticity

We have identified five questions every leader can ask themselves if they are unsure about whether to share something, or how much information to reveal, while still being authentic. The answers will help you decide whether you are being both authentic and respectful of the needs of others.

  1. In what way am I helping someone else by sharing this?
  2. In what way might I damage someone else by sharing this?
  3. Do I have a right to speak about this?
  4. What are my reasons for sharing this about myself/sharing this with you/sharing this about someone or something else?
  5. What does my organisation or my team, need from me most right now as a leader?

Summary

Employees want to work for a genuine leader, who doesn’t hide behind a mask of inauthenticity. But equally, people don’t want to work for a leader who is ruled by their emotions or who shares too much. We don’t all bring a positive outlook to work each day, and even the most senior individuals have colleagues they’d rather not work with. However, the best leaders use authenticity appropriately to create a supportive and positive workplace where everyone can thrive.

[1] Bill George, Authentic Leadership, Jossey-Bass (2013).

[2] Erica Keswin, Bring Your Human to Work, McGraw Hill Education (2019).

[3] Vanessa Buote, ‘Most Employees Feel Authentic at Work, but It Can Take a While’, 6th May 2016, Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2016/05/most-employees-feel-authentic-at-work-but-it-can-take-a-while

[4] Nick Davies, ‘What is authentic leadership and how can it help business?’ SME Web, 16th March 2017. Available at: http://www.smeweb.com/2017/03/16/what-is-authentic-leadership-and-how-can-it-help-business/

The Dark Side of Authentic Leadership