How many times have you heard or said this about leadership communications at your company: “It’s just the party line” or “It’s all just corporate double-talk” or “Why bother going to the meeting; they won’t tell us what’s really going on”?

Why is authenticity important? Authenticity can differentiate good leaders from bad ones. Authenticity can motivate employees to perform and be loyal to the organization. Authenticity can also solidify trust in relationships well beyond the organization. Authenticity is more than just being open or telling the truth. It requires an awareness of yourself and your values.

What is authenticity?

Authenticity is:

Being true to yourself.

Being open with others.

Being honest, doing the right thing.

Defining authenticity is one thing, but how do you know what authenticity looks like? How do you know if someone is truly open and honest? What behaviours demonstrate authenticity? Think about leaders you know personally or from the news and history. Which ones do you think are authentic? How does their authenticity show through?

Here are a few examples of authentic leaders:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Civil Rights Movement
  • Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM
  • Oprah Winfrey, actress, former television show host
  • Jack Welch, former CEO of GE
  • Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox
  • Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady
  • Warren Buffett, investor, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

All of these people exemplify authenticity by being in touch with themselves and speaking openly to others. For example, Steve Jobs said at his commencement address at Stanford University: “Truth be told, this is the closest I've ever gotten to a college graduation.” He proceeded to explain why he dropped out of college. One of the students who helped choose Steve Jobs as the commencement speaker said they had expected him to talk about his successes, not his failures.

Authentic leaders are not afraid to talk about their failures. They are willing to share their mistakes and shortcomings. Warren Buffet said his biggest mistake was buying Berkshire Hathaway: “a 200-billion-dollar mistake.” Authentic leaders also talk about hardships they have overcome. Oprah Winfrey, for example, has been extremely open about her traumatic childhood.

And finally, authentic leaders speak candidly, as Ann Mulcahy did when she told her team members, “Hey, no games. Let’s just talk.” Eleanor Roosevelt also exemplified this in her famously candid autobiography.

Keys to becoming an authentic leader

Now that you know what authenticity is and what it looks like, you may be wondering, how do you become authentic? Most of us have been taught to “never show your weaknesses” and “put your best foot forward.” How do you take off the mask and speak from the heart instead? Before you can speak from your heart, you have to know who you are and what you stand for. This means increasing your self-awareness.

An authentic leader possesses self-awareness

This is the first step to authentic leadership. You have to know who you are and what is important to you to be true to yourself. This may sound easy, but it really isn’t. Let me put on my psychologist hat for a moment and talk to you about self-deception. We all know at least a little bit about denial, rationalization, repression, and narcissism. Yes, we all do it. The question is, to what extent?

To be authentic, you have to know what your fears and anxieties are, and what coping mechanisms you adopted to deal with early childhood experiences that are still in effect today. You have to break through these and come to terms with yourself. You have to accept your strengths and weaknesses and be willing to share them to mentor and coach others. This is harder for some people than for others.

I work with many leaders, and I can tell very quickly who is self-aware and who isn’t. I’m sure you can too if you think about it. Leaders who are self-aware are much stronger people, and they are easier to follow because they are consistent and open about their agendas.

Think back to your examples of authentic leaders. How could you tell they were self-aware? What behaviours demonstrated this to you? What language do they use that conveys this to you?

An authentic leader is true to their values

Part of being self-aware is understanding what is important to you. What are your values? Values include how you think people should be treated, how important honesty is to you, what is fairness, how important money is, how important relationships are, and so on. It is important to reassess your values periodically as they may shift over time. I had an opportunity to come to terms with my own values when I had a child; when I realized how important it was for me to spend time with my child, I had to reanalyze my career goals.

Now think about your examples of authentic leaders. What values do they have? How do they incorporate their values into their leadership? What dilemmas have they faced and how did they resolve them?

One of my favourite examples of an authentic leader is Martin Luther King, Jr. He fought violence with nonviolence through the Civil Rights Movement. One of his highest values was nonviolence, no matter how ugly and violent others were to him and his cause. His value of nonviolence continued in his legacy to achieve his ultimate goal of equality. His authenticity and values were an inspiration to us all, and his legacy lives on as we further the advancement of equality in our society.

No matter who you are or what you’re leading, authenticity is important. It’s what your followers want. To lead authentically, you need to know who you are and be open with others. When you lead authentically, people trust you to deliver a message worth listening to.

About the author

Joanie B. Connell, Ph.D., is a talent management expert, organizational consultant, author, and public speaker. She is also a leadership and career coach and she especially loves helping technical people improve their people skills and bringing people skills to tech development, including AI.