Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

What We Get Wrong About Authenticity In Leadership

Discover why authenticity in leadership is not about being the “real you”, but about understanding what your purpose and core values are.

When it comes to improving the way we lead, there’s a number of approaches that have been championed by both leadership experts and researchers looking into understanding what makes someone a successful leader.

While some concepts can be straightforward, others are more susceptible to misinterpretation and consequently, lead to approaches that weaken your ability to bring out the best in those you lead. One example of this is the idea that we need to be “more authentic” in our leadership.

Unfortunately, talk of authenticity in leadership often gives rise to the notion that leaders simply need to be ‘the real you’.

The truth, though, is that when it comes to leadership, authenticity isn’t about being the “real me”, but being true to our purpose and values that drive us [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

It means that in every encounter, in every conversation, and in every word we speak and action we take we hold ourselves true to that vision that defines why we do what we do, as well as to those core values that serve as both our cardinal points and rudder to ensure we stay the course and not run astray.

Of course, when it comes to core values in leadership, not surprisingly the values that come up are integrity, trust, and respect. Without question, these are important values that a leader must treat as not only unshakable, but ones that should never be compromised in order to achieve our goals or vision.

However, in the context of authenticity in leadership, we need to do more than simply adhere to these core values considering how these are values that we should expect in everyone and not just in those holding leadership positions.

After all, would you willingly buy from someone who lacks integrity in how they’re willing to short-change you to increase their profit margins? Would you want to do business with someone who disrespects you or the people you care about? And would you be okay doing business with someone you don’t trust?

Of course not, which is why we need to recognize that these aren’t noble or virtuous values to hold, but the very least we should have and be doing.

But this is where our values allow us to be more authentic in our leadership as they help to inform not only our choices and decisions in terms of how we lead, but they also allow our employees to have more realistic expectations and understandings about who we are as leaders, and what we’re willing to accept and what we’re willing to fight for.

That’s why the core values a leader has should differ from one person to another – our values are a product of our experiences, our education, our world view, and who we are [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

For some leaders, the values that might drive them are accountability and the pursuit of excellence. For others, the values that define who they are might be adaptability, inquisitiveness, and perseverance.

For sure, these are values that many of us will espouse as being desirable, but that’s not the same as being the values that ground us. That they are those ever-present values that consistently serve to shape, inform, and define how we view a situation and how we go about making a decision with regards to where to go next.

That variability in what values we hold dear as leaders is why we’re hearing so much lately about hiring people not just for their technical competencies, but for culture fit. If our employees understand and share the values we hold dear, it’s not only easier to engage them in our vision, but it’s also easier for us to be that more authentic leader they want and need us to be because we know they’re driven by the same values as us.

And this, of course, is where our shared purpose fills in the other half of the equation in terms of what authenticity really means in leadership. Once we recognize what values we wish to be known by, we then have to be able to consistently articulate not only what it is we hope to achieve, but why we do what we do.

Indeed, being authentic in our leadership means people know what to expect from us and where we’re headed [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

It means we’re not trying to hide what we’re hoping to achieve, perhaps out of fear that it might not work out. Rather, authenticity in leadership allows for our employees to call us out when the choices and decisions we make serve only our short-term interests at the expense of achieving our shared purpose.

In other words, authenticity is about looking outwards towards those we lead, and not inwards towards ourselves [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

This is why so many employees long for more authentic leaders, not because they want us to be “real” in terms of who we are, but that we have this outward focus that allows them to know without question what we stand for, what we truly care about, what we’re willing to fight for, and why any of this will matter to them.

In his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, Marshall Goldsmith writes that this tendency to view authenticity as being this notion that people just have accept our poor behaviour or conduct because we’re just being our real selves is basically “exalting our faults as virtues simply because they’re who we are.”

To build on Marshall’s point, it’s just lazy to dismiss poor behaviour as merely being a reflection of who you are, warts and all, especially for those in leadership positions. Remember, your role doesn’t give you the right to dump your personal issues onto those you lead. But it does require that you deliver your best before you can demand the same from those under your care.

And that’s the real purpose of authenticity in leadership – authenticity should drive us to deliver our best, not to unload our worst onto those we lead [Twitter logoShare on Twitter].

So if you’re considering being more authentic in how you lead, ask yourself whether the actions and words you take serve to benefit your employees, or is it merely an excuse for you to not challenge yourself to become the leader your employees need you to be.

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  1. On November 12th, 2017 at 6:36 PM Steven Byers said:

    Hello Tanveer!
    I hope you’re well. I appreciated your post, and wonder whether you are familiar with the ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action) community? For many years an annual Summer Leadership Intensive was held in Halifax, NS. Now ALIA is located at Naropa University, and many of the in-person programs take place in the Pacific Northwest. We have a vibrant Community of Practice that includes multiple Canadians. We don’t have a CoP website yet, but here’s the link to Authentic Leadership programs – enaropa.org.

    I’d love to hear what you think!


    Steve Byers
    Olympia, WA

  2. On November 14th, 2017 at 2:09 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Steven, I’m glad you enjoyed my piece. I’m not familiar with the ALIA community, but from what I perused, it definitely seems like it aligns with what I’ve written about here. Thanks again, Steven, for your comment.

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