The unintended consequences of being ‘authentic’.

Over many years we have seen articles that suggest that being ‘authentic’ is crucial to great leadership.  And indeed it is – just not, perhaps, in the way you think.

It seems to us that the idea of being ‘authentic’ is in some ways becoming an excuse to be crass, rude, overbearing, dismissive of others (insert a range of negative behaviours you have seen).  Playing to a base of people who support you and ignoring or criticising those who don’t.  Perhaps you might have noticed this reflected in some people in the public eye that hold positions of authority?  Maybe you’ve seen this in authority figures in your own organisation?  We think we may have spotted a few!

There seems to be a common thread of people with this leadership style whose mantra is probably something along the lines of “This is me, this is who I am, like it or lump it!’

Which is fine if you’re happy to allow your ego to get in the way of really reaching your full leadership potential.

If your ambition as a leader is to make a really positive difference for your team, organisation and wider society you need to get beyond the facade and be authentic in a way that engages all your stakeholders, not just your core supporters, and brings a wider network of people together.

This takes 4 considerations.

Being connected with yourself.

In leadership we often suggest authenticity is ‘bringing your whole self to a situation’.

But what does this really mean?

‘Surely if I ‘bring my whole self’ then that mean just being who I am?’ I hear you say.

Well Yes – and No!

‘Bringing your whole self’ isn’t just about being ‘who you are’.  This might be seen as self-indulgent at best and maybe narcissistic at worst.

Being your whole self means also recognising the strengths you have that might be being overplayed and causing unintended consequences; irritating people, rubbing them up the wrong way, talking over them.  The small things that people notice (but don’t tell you that you’re doing it) and perhaps makes them think you aren’t really that good a leader.  It’s recognising the strengths that have always brought you success, and now get in the way.

It’s recognising when you are unconsciously acting from a place of anxiety or stress.  Using those learned behaviours that, at some point in the past, probably protected you and yet now don’t support you in making the impact you want.  But you keep doing it anyway!

It’s the basis of Emotional Intelligence, as coined by Goleman, and yet it’s more.

It’s not enough just to acknowledge the behaviours and recognise what might drive these behaviours.  It takes a shift from thinking about things and doing things differently (learning new habits) to embodying the changes so they help you transform into the ‘authentic self you could be’ rather than being stuck in the ‘authentic self you are today’.

Being connected with others.

In one-to-one relationships there are many articles and theories around managing conflict, being assertive, influencing and so on.  Mostly these ideas suggest any solutions/problems are ‘with you’ or ‘with them’.  Typically suggesting  the more flexible you are in your mode of behaviour the better your ability to influence the outcome.  This may be true, and often results in an outcome that primarily meets your own needs whilst blocking the potential for a joint solution that could create a better, bigger, more impactful outcomes.

Being connected with others isn’t about you or them – it’s about the ‘space between’ in a relationship or conversation.

It’s noticing the subtle shifts in language and tonality, letting you know that something isn’t working the way that you hoped.

It’s noticing the body language not being congruent with what you expected, indicating something hasn’t landed the way you intended.

And then rather than thinking ‘What do I need to do differently?’ or ‘I wish they’d do x, y, or z!’ it’s being curious about ‘what do WE need to do differently to better relate to each other’ and acting on it.  This takes bravery and a different mindset (and isn’t as simple as it sounds).

Being connected with groups (and teams).

This is about being connected with the groups you are already a member of and (perhaps more importantly) being connected with the groups you aren’t.

We are all members of multiple groups, with varying degrees of commitment and engagement.  These might be groups you lead, or groups you join, it doesnt really matter.

This is about the impression you make and whether you are really seen as connected to those people whose support you need to really drive success.

Imagine you are highly engaged in one group, make valued contributions and supporting the wider group and in another group you are disengaged, distant and don’t really add value.

The group you add value too will probably see you as authentic, great to be around and say good things about you.  The group you are disengaged from may see you a difficult, awkward or maybe even a waste of space.  They will probably consider you to be inauthentic.

And then there’s the groups you don’t see yourself as a member of.

Aligning with certain groups to the exclusion of others causes fractures in relationships and cliques in organisations (and society).  You only have to look at the world today and see people and organisations having trust issues with their customers or their populations to see the impact of not being connected with all the groups in your orbit.

Being connected with a purpose.

Do you stand for anything that goes beyond your own needs?  If you are driven by self need – becoming more senior, having power, being in the public eye, etc – it might drive individual success but is also likely to draw mixed responses in terms of whether you are seen as authentic.

Again, just look at some people in the public eye whose views and opinions seems to shift to maintain a degree of popularity with a certain demographic, and then gain criticism or even derision from others.

Being connected with a purpose means identifying ‘the difference the world needs that you can uniquely deliver’ as Peter Hawkins often says.  This goes beyond looking what your own needs are to considering the needs of others; your team, organisation and wider society and then identifying what you can do to make a positive impact.

If you stand for something consistent and positive even those who don’t buy into you are at likely least acknowledge you stand for something and are authentic in this!

4 steps to build your authenticity.

  1. Look inside and be compassionate with the parts of yourself you hide from that drive unhelpful behaviours.  The parts of yourself you don’t want to perhaps acknowledge.  Your shadow that follows you and you don’t want to see.
  2. Be curious about relationships you are in.  Explore when they aren’t working the way you would like, and jointly figure out what you can both do differently to co-create better outcomes for each other.
  3. Pay attention to the groups you engage with (and don’t).  Be curious about the impact you are having and how this impacts on people’s view of you as a leader.  Consider how you can engage even with groups you disagree with to find common ground and a way to make things better for the wider system and not just your part of the system.
  4. Take time to figure out what it is that you can uniquely do with your skills, knowledge and behaviours and how that can be used to make a positive change for people other than yourself.

Stretch People are experts in helping develop authentic leaders at a deep levels through individual and systemic coaching.  Please get in contact with us at for more information or even just a conversation.

We’d also love to hear your examples of authentic leaders and what made them appear as authentic – and also any views on what made you consider leaders to be inauthentic.

Look forward to your thoughts and comments.