The perils of Authentic Leadership

No longer is it enough to be a strong leader, a motivational leader or an intelligent leader. Now you’ve got to be an authentic leader. What’s wrong with that I hear you shout. Authenticity is just a more en vogue version of good old fashioned “open and honest” isn’t it? Standard fodder for the CV and interview prep. Well, yes and no, in my humble opinion. Authenticity is so “in” it’s scary, so much so that its elevated its status and importance way beyond just being one on a list of things, in the way “open and honest” was. Surely, this is just more trendy twaddle to keep the HR industry going? Maybe, to a degree, but in my book it’s also bang on the mark, which means any of the right kind of aspiring leader needs to sit up and take note. The big challenge however, is that to pull off BOTH great leadership and full authenticity is not a simple, straight and solid road, it is in fact a rickety track through a shark infested swamp of self exposure.


For a start being totally authentic at work is bloody hard when you’re at or close to the top. There is a certain scrutiny that comes with the title that means putting your real self out there – and I mean your REAL self – is not without risks. Let’s face it, are there any of us with a compass and backpack so clear and clean that they have never waivered from “morally and ethically perfect” in our entire existence? No smirk at an unfortunate rivals demise, no overdoing it at an office do, no skeletons in the closet from student high jinks? Because the first rule of truly authentic leadership is it has to be “All In”. Part way gets seen through in a jiffy.

So what are the risks? Well firstly, you have to not be a twat. And let’s face it, probably 75% of the top brass in most organisations fail this test. Luckily for them, they probably don’t know it. But unluckily for them, the people in the organisations do, and as a result any “authentic leadership” test for this large group is a natural fail.

Secondly, and most importantly for those of us that are still lucky enough to be standing, is that you have to actually take the leap and go for it. And that means being willing to bare yourself fully in front of your, hopefully adoring, subjects. Believe me, you will soon find out. Early on in my career I was given bad advice by someone I held in very high regard. He told me that you must always keep a seperate mask to put on when you are at work. Keep the real you out of the workplace, and then unleash it at evenings and weekends. For far too long I lived by his advice. More fool me. And there’s a lesson there about over worshipping your role models – but we’ll keep that for another day. The outcome of my folly was that for decades I felt just a little bit false for some of most days. Not totally, because your character comes through naturally to a degree, but I always felt there was an electric fence preventing me from exposing too much, to save me from getting a shock, and from shocking others. A boss is meant to be a boss right? Interestingly it only became apparent to me when I started actually listening to the feedback I was getting that I was a “private” person, and kept myself to myself. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the fence was doing its job well, and I had no interest at that stage in dismantling it.

To be honest, when I put the pieces together and came up with the answer, it was a relief. If you can actually let go and be yourself, life becomes much easier. Sure there may be a few mumbles and grumbles from prissy quarters when you overstep the mark, but on the whole the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. I’ve found out more about my team, what makes them tick and most importantly how to actually help and encourage them, since I’ve released the real me. And the results have improved markedly as has their confidence.

The final risk is recognising that there will be times that authenticity and leadership bang heads. They are not fully mutually exclusive, and it’s important to recognise this so that you are prepared to deal with situations as they arise. In my world this raised its head recently when I was put right on the spot when asked if I was thinking about leaving my current role. Be authentic and create unnecessary uncertainty and concern or flannel around with a cover up answer that will probably be seen through and damage the trust of the relationship. Tough call. In this case I went with authenticity, partly because I’m giving “all in” a real go, and partly because my gut feel told me that with this member of my team, this was the right approach. The watch out with this is that there is a risk of blurred lines. Boss and team member or mates? You do need to ensure that you think through what you’re getting into and plan for how you want to approach the balancing act.

And me? I’m pretty happy with where I’ve landed on this one. I feel more confident and able to lead and make a real difference. And I feel much freer to perform my role as I like, rather than tow a line I don’t buy into. It may yet come back to bite me but right now it feels good. My advice – jump in with both feet and be yourself, but be ready for what will bounce back at you.

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