Are you for real? – the search for authentic leadership


November 21st, 2012

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I was coming to the end of my usual 26 mile car journey home from work that traces the A23 from the depths of Sussex to the heart of London, when my headlamps picked up a sign strapped to a crash barrier: “Stevie Wonder at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls”. My eyes momentarily popped out of my head – one of my favourite recording artists performing in my home town – surely not?

I was right. As I got closer, the words in much smaller type above Stevie’s name came into focus: “A tribute to…”. My eyes returned to their sockets. Some of these tribute bands are pretty good, and Stevie’s songs are Stevie’s songs after all – but there’s nothing like the authentic Stevie.

It got me thinking about our desire for authenticity, how the word ‘authentic’ has been used and abused over recent years, plastered all over cheap clothing trying to give it some kind of credibility, with little success. And it is a word that has been used and abused in reference to leadership, too. “What we need is authentic leadership” has been the cry of many an author and many an employee as the subject of leadership has been pored over and turned into print more than almost any other subject.

What do we mean by ‘authentic’ leadership?

I must admit, something in the phrase “Authentic Leadership” is appealing to me. I want the real deal, the genuine article. But what do we really mean by it? It’s difficult enough defining leadership. As Charles Handy  said in his book  ‘The Gods of Management’: “Leadership is one of the most studied but least understood of all the social sciences. Like beauty or love, we know it when we see it, but it’s much more difficult to define it or produce it on demand.”

The dictionary definition of authenticity varies: ‘genuine’, ‘original’, ‘real’, ‘not counterfeit’, ‘natural’. But if you read the literature on authentic leadership, the theme often strays towards simply exploring effective leadership per se.

When Goffee and Jones studied the leadership literature for their book “Why should anyone be led by you?” they concluded: “there are no universal leadership characteristics. What works for one leader will not work for another. We think that those aspiring to leadership need to discover what it is about themselves that they can mobilise in a leadership context. They need to identify and deploy their own leadership assets”. They suggest  that leaders need to ‘be themselves – with skill’!

So, in authenticity there is something about being yourself as a leader, a sense of genuineness, of not simply playing a role, or imitating someone else, but playing yourself.

Five characteristics of authentic leaders

But is that what people are asking for when they appeal for authentic leadership? I think it starts with this, but is also more than simply being yourself. When I yearn for authentic leadership, in myself and others, I notice that I am looking for five characteristics, for leaders to demonstrate that they are:

  1. Trustworthy. We need Leaders that can be trusted – that show integrity, credibility, reliability and congruence;  that say what they mean, mean what they say and do what they say too – walking the talk and keeping their promises.
  2. Human. Leaders that are approachable, not hiding behind their role or status; capable of a degree of intimate connection; in touch with their own emotions and those of others, not afraid to show their emotions, when appropriate.
  3. Humble. Leaders that are self-aware, that know their strengths and limitations; that recognise their need to work with those who have complementary strengths. Leaders that own up to their mistakes and offer a sincere apology when appropriate, particularly when they break a promise. Leaders that recognise they are on a journey; that they are still learning.
  4. Principled. Leaders who know what they believe, what they value and the principles that they will live and die by. This doesn’t mean they are rigid and intransigent and unable to compromise – they should be able to flex and give on many issues when the situation demands it.  But they know where their line is drawn, the relatively few principles on which they will not compromise even if it means that profits, popularity or prospects suffer as a result.Bill George describes this as a Leader’s ‘True North’ in his book: ‘Finding your True North’.
  5. Other-centred. Leaders that are not self-absorbed or self-conscious, but basically secure in themselves, comfortable in their own skin, and as a result are able to keep their focus on serving others. Leaders that are not self-promoting but recognise their role is to enable and empower others to be the best they can be for their own good and the good of the organisation.

I could add many other characteristics if I was to define an all round effective leader, but in terms of authentic  leadership, these are my top five – the ones that would earn the label ‘Authentic’ in my book.

But what do you think?

  • Do you agree with the notion that ‘to be a leader is to be yourself’?
  • To what extent do you feel free to be yourself at work – to ‘play yourself with skill’? Or do you feel you need to play a different role?
  • Do you resonate with Adrian’s five characteristics of authentic leadership?
  • What would be your top five?


adrianAdrian Lock is a Senior Consultant and Programme Director for Strategic Leadership