What is Authentic Leadership Anyway?

Read time: 7 minutes

In this edition

Welcome to the latest edition of the Great Exec/ution newsletter.

Our focus this week is on authentic leadership. It is an approach to leadership that has caught fire over the past several years, although it owes its rise (at least in part) to the influx of Millenials in the workplace, which is not new. I’m writing about it because I’ve struggled to make sense of what authentic leadership actually is. It seems to be everything to everyone, and there is no shortage of hippie-dippie mumbo jumbo that completely turned me off—and I’m a sympathetic audience! So in this week’s newsletter I dig into it and propose some insight and advice drawn on experience.

On an administrative note, as I hinted at a couple Sundays ago, I have moved off of Substack and into a different platform. While I like Substack, this new platform is more suited to my needs.

I am using this relaunch to change a few things as well.

  • Each newsletter will have one major focal point, as before.
  • You’ll now receive this Saturday morning instead of Sunday, and we’ll go to a weekly schedule instead of bi-weekly.
  • I’ll be a bit shorter in terms of read time: 5 minutes. Action-packed. I’m a bit longer this week, but that will get better.
  • Finally, I’ll be summarizing the thoughts I’ve shared on LinkedIn in the past week as well so they are in one convenient place.
     

Let me know what you think, and thank you for subscribing.

Authentic Leadership

Note: I will be honest with you. I have been deeply cynical of the buzz surrounding authentic leadership. A lot of my skepticism arises from the new-age baloney in the articles I’ve read that are long on the “feel good” and short on the practical realities and guidance. Some of my skepticism arises from my lived experience, where employee demands for authenticity are merely immature criticisms by which they aim to bludgeon leaders whose decisions they don’t agree with. Nevertheless, I think authenticity—properly and functionally defined—is a highly valuable trait and a real arrow in your quiver for building a mature, engaged, and resilient corporate culture. So here’s my take on authenticity, stripped of jargon and BS, and replaced with experience-based insight and actionable advice.

What is authentic leadership? What problems is it solving?

Authenticity in leadership has risen to prominence as a response to a desire for more transparent, relatable, and people-focused management. It addresses a need for leaders who are not just corporate figureheads but real, approachable individuals who genuinely care about their team’s welfare. This concept has gained traction, becoming a hallmark of modern leadership, where empathy and personal connection are valued as much as strategic acumen.

While the definition of authentic leadership varies by author, most characterize the term as an alignment of internal values and external actions, where the leader makes decisions based on their personal principles and integrity. In everyday practice, though, the definition broadens. Employees typically extend the concept of authenticity to include a leader’s personability, openness, and empathic connection with their team.

My view ultimately is that authentic is the term people use to describe executives whose actions are consistent with their beliefs, and who share their beliefs and reasons for acting as they do with their teams. Authentic leaders do what they say and say what they do. Perhaps most of all, authenticity is viewed proof of humanity.

But there are challenges precisely due to the fact that leaders and employees are human. Let’s explore three of them.

Challenges to Authenticity in Leadership

1. Instagram-ably authentic

We live in a world where company brands and personal brands are finely crafted, and there are plenty of leaders who know how to project a well-honed image. The question, invariably, is whether this carefully cultivated image is real. It is important for leaders to communicate what they stand for, but that needs to be genuine and not a façade. The great irony is that when the mask slips, it will ultimately do exactly the opposite: expose the leader as a fake. For example, you can imagine the crippling impact on trust of a leader who shares team success stories on social media with a curated image, but, when the team faces a crisis, fails to address real issues.

There is ultimately no hiding one’s true personality, especially from those for whom authenticity belies the fact that they have no visionary or execution capacity—the classic charismatic leader with no substance.

2. Generational and cultural divides

Part of the reason behind the rise of authenticity as a leadership behavior is the changing generational makeup of the workplace. Picture a scenario where a seasoned Gen X executive leads a team of Millennials and Gen Z professionals. The concept of authenticity is perceived differently across these generations. The Gen X leader will have started her/his career under Boomer management, where there was a preference for less communication and a healthy professional distance, while the younger team members might expect a more open and emotionally expressive leader.

Equally impactful are the cultural differences in leadership expectations. Every culture has norms on emotional expression not just in the workplace, but in life. In some parts of the world, like the United States, there is a greater expectation for leaders to be emotionally open and approachable, whereas some European and Asian cultures value a more reserved and formal leadership style.

3. Oversharing and workforce maturity

Envision a leader who, in an effort to be transparent during a crisis, openly shares their fears and uncertainties. While intended to be transparent, it can backfire—sometimes spectacularly. In any organization, these expressions can cause feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. In organizations with a culture of dependency or limited open dialogue, they might even cause panic. In the most toxic cultures, open communication can even be weaponized.

Advice for Leaders

1. Be yourself.

It may be blindingly obvious, but it is worth saying: the foundation of authentic leadership is you. It is about your own journey—your values, experiences, and what has shaped your character. You can aspire to other ideals, but trying to portray these as a genuine reflection of you will feel alien and—more often than not—be discovered. Authentic leadership is fundamentally about allowing your true self to guide your leadership path.

This implies, however, that you have the self-awareness needed to know your leadership style. Don’t trust your own head on this; people have a tendency to overestimate their strengths and underestimate their weaknesses. Get honest 360-degree feedback from other leaders, your manager, and your team.

2. Tailor the how and how much, not the what.

While being true to the person you are, articulate your positions in a way that resonates with your team. It’s not always easy to find the right balance between staying true to yourself and being effective in diverse settings, but experience is a great teacher.

Unfortunately, the only real advice anyone can give is to experiment with different words, forums, and formats. Small groups are more intimate than large ones and allow for greater nuance to come through. Published statements are more definitive and can be sculpted in advance, but live voices and impromptu remarks can be remarkably powerful. Remember that quite often it’s not the what you are saying, but how you are saying it and how much you say. Effective cross-generational and cross-cultural communication may be one of the most crucial skills you can develop as a leader for successful execution and engagement.

That said, don’t be naïve either. You will quickly learn how much your team can handle. You can expand that, though, by using the third skill.

3. Insist on reciprocity

My skepticism about employee demands for authentic leadership arises from the fact that authenticity is a two-way street. Thus while it’s reasonable for employees to want authentic leaders, too few (in my experience, at least) understand that it obligates them to behave with reciprocity and act constructively and maturely. Employees have to be part of the solution, at least so they use don’t use authenticity as a bludgeon when leaders say something they don’t like.

When you think about it this way, the mechanism by which you can learn how to tailor your approach becomes immediately apparent: talk with your team.

Engage in open dialogue. Share your views on authenticity, and invite them to share theirs. Discuss and align on mutual expectations around leadership and authenticity. This process helps fosters a mature and supportive work environment, where authenticity is respected and valued in its varied expressions. Perhaps most importantly, it buys time and goodwill for people to learn your style.

Conclusion

In conclusion, embracing authenticity in leadership is not just about aligning actions with words; it’s a continuous journey of self-awareness, adaptability, and open communication. Authenticity in leadership involves being true to oneself while adeptly navigating the diverse expectations and needs of those you lead. By embracing some practical steps, you can sidestep the occasional minefields and develop a communication style that is a tangible, impactful aspect of your personal leadership style that simultaneously enriches the company’s culture.

LinkedIn Roundup

Here are the things I talked about this past week on Linkedin.

 

Here are all my posts on LinkedIn.

You can also read my articles on a host of topics related to leadership and execution at my website.

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