Yes, good leaders are authentic leaders — but here’s what that actually means

Feb 16, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here. 

I’ve been counting how often the word authenticity appears in the business press, either in headlines or in lead paragraphs, and its use has exploded over the last decade or so.

If you go on Amazon, you can find over 40,000 books on how to be more authentic. Clearly, we have a problem if we have to spend so much money just to be ourselves. But the cost, as I see it, is not just to our pocketbooks.

I’ve come to conclude that the way we think about authenticity poses a real danger to our capacity to grow and learn.

Let me explain. I teach at London Business School, and I’ve researched people who come to what I call “what-got-you-here-won’t-get-you-there moments”. Those are the moments when you realize that whatever made you successful in the past or got you there will not make you successful going forward and might even get in your way.

For instance, let’s say that you’re fantastic at delivering results through your own efforts, but now you have to deliver results through other people. Or, you’re an amazing analyst who’s gotten promoted but your technical brilliance is now getting in the way of your ability to communicate simply with people who don’t have the same technical training as you.

What’s tricky about these transition points is not that the new skills are hard to learn, it’s that the old ones have become core to our sense of who we are, our identity. As a result, not sticking with them feels like we’re somehow being inauthentic and so we do — and we get stuck.

Here’s an example. Anna, one of the people I talked to in the course of my research, was the CEO of a midsize transportation company. She’d been brought in from the outside to turn the company around, and she had. The results were great, and they were profitable again. She had raised revenues and they had overhauled operations, but she was always finding herself at cross purposes with the chairman of the company.

This was playing itself out at their board meetings, where they clashed. Essentially, he wanted her to communicate in an inspirational and personal way to employees. That was his style, while she was your prototypical engineer and a by-the-numbers kind of person.

As I listened to her talk about her frustrations, I said, “It sounds to me like what he’s saying is the next time you have a key meeting, perhaps you might think about telling a bit of a personal story or an anecdote about something important that taught you the way you think instead of leading with the spreadsheets as you tend to do.”

She just looked at me coldly and said, “We’re in danger today of being mesmerized by people who play with our reptilian brains. To me, that’s manipulation. Of course, I can tell a story, but if the story is too obvious, I can’t make myself do it.”

Now here’s the question: Is Anna being authentic? Well, yes. But is Anna being rigid? Yes.

So, how do you know the difference? And what should she do? Shouldn’t she be true to herself? Don’t people want their leaders to be authentic?

Let’s look at some of the ways in which we define authenticity and see if they can help us sort out some of these questions.

The most common way we define authenticity is being true to yourself. But that raises the question: True to which self? Your old self, today’s self, or your future self? And if it’s your old self or today’s self, does that mean being authentic condemns you to being as you’ve always been?

Of course not. Often, we’ll be true to a self that we want to become or an aspirational self — that’s what we talk about when we say “fake it till you make it”.

But Anna doesn’t aspire to be a motivational storyteller; she doesn’t want to be one of those people who are all style and little substance.

A second way that we define authenticity is being sincere — in other words, saying what you mean and meaning what you say. As it turns out, the word “sincere” has a really interesting origin. It comes from two Latin roots  “sine,” without, and “cera,” wax, that together mean “without wax.”

That phrase comes from ancient Rome where it was a common practice for statue merchants to hide any flaws in their statues with wax. The more scrupulous merchants and the ones who didn’t want to be dishonest would hang a sign outside their shops that said “Sine Cera.”

For Anna, numbers are sincere and presenting anything else is playing games. But we all know the first principle of effective communication is tailoring it to your audience. When you’re new to it or not comfortable with that, you insist — as Anna did — that the numbers should speak for themselves.

A third definition of authenticity is being true to your values. For Anna, the value of substance over style had been so ingrained in her. It went all the way back to her training in engineering school, where I’m sure they didn’t have courses on the art of telling a good story. But when she and I met, she was no longer working as an engineer — she was now the CEO — and she needed a bigger repertoire.

Anna was a classic example of what I call the “authenticity paradox.” It’s when you find yourself facing a choice between being yourself or doing what it takes to be effective. You need to pick one or the other.

You want to move up or be successful and have more impact, but like Anna, you’re a bit ambivalent about the transition and a bit afraid. You’ll have to sacrifice your values and your integrity, and you don’t want to do it like all those people who came before you who were less sincere or more political.

The whole situation evokes a version of your self that is you at your most conservative and most cautious — and that self is neither authentic nor is it accomplishing what you most want to accomplish. But you stick to it, because you feel morally justified in being authentic.

So how do you get out of this bind? What works? I’ve found that you cannot think your way out or reflect your way out of the authenticity paradox; you have to act your way into a new way of thinking about yourself.

Here’s another example, and it comes from my own experience. When I started my career as a business school professor many moons ago, it’s fair to say that I was dismal as a teacher and I was at the bottom of the barrel in terms of the ratings. What’s more, I was also not having any fun in the classroom teaching.

Loads of people tried to help me, and they invariably gave me the same advice we all get when we’re having a hard time: “Just be yourself.” But as far as I could see, that was the problem. I was too much myself — too introverted, too academic, too theoretical, too inexperienced, too scared.

One day, a colleague came by to help me out and he gave me somewhat different advice. He said:

“When you walk into that room, you have to recognize that this is an arena and you have to own it. Right now, you’re walking in there as if this was all about the content of what you have to deliver, the knowledge, the research, the ideas. Let me tell you that it has nothing to do with that — this is all about you owning the space with your presence.

The only way you’ll make it clear to each and every student sitting there that this is your space and not their space is to go mark your territory in each of the four corners of that amphitheater. Go up there to that back row. That’s where the troublemakers sit; they think they’re safe and you’re not gonna see what they’re up to. You go right up there, and look at what they’re doing. Do they take notes? Do they highlight the case? Are they prepared? Are they doing something else?

Get to know them, one by one. Even if they’re sitting in the middle seat in the row, go in there and have a conversation with them. Show them that you know it’s your room, it’s not theirs.”

How little do you think I wanted to take his advice? I much preferred sticking to my highly ineffective method of staying up all night preparing. At some point, though, I got desperate enough to try it. It didn’t work right away. Some of the students didn’t like me being in their face, but I got their attention. I started to get to know them a little bit better, I learned more about what they were interested in, and I learned more about what they were looking for from the class.

Ultimately, my little experiment eventually ended up changing two important things: how I saw my job and how I saw myself. Before, I saw my job as being about me delivering what they needed to know. But this shifted to me thinking about how I could create the conditions that increased engagement and increased learning.

And that freed me up. Before this, I saw myself as an introverted, serious academic. Like Anna, I wasn’t one of those people into infotainment and silly theatrics. However, as I started to see the power of teaching in this new and different way, I started to see the value of it. I came to see that I could be good at it — and that it could help me accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.

Years later, I saw more and more people take the experiment-and-learn approach with success. I started digging around for a more expansive definition of authenticity, and it turns out that the word “authenticity” comes from the Greek word “authenteos” which originally meant “that which you do with your own hands.”

It developed from there to mean being the author, acting of your own authority and eventually being self-authoring. That’s the definition which humanistic psychologists people interested in self-actualization built upon. They saw authenticity not as a trait — something you either have or you don’t have — but as the outcome of a process of becoming your own person, the lifelong process of learning about yourself.

Remember: Learning means doing stuff that doesn’t feel very comfortable, because you don’t know how to do it yet. It could mean being a Machiavellian marking the four corners of the room when you’re an introverted academic. Or, telling a soppy emotional story when you’re a by-the-numbers kind of person.

That’s why it helps to be playful with your sense of self. By that, I mean the opposite of taking a work-like approach. Because when most of us work, we’re serious. We don’t deviate from the straight and narrow; we’re goal-oriented.

But when you play, you’re playful. You’re free to experiment and try things out. If it doesn’t work, you try something else instead. You’re not committing to being any one person; you iterate. Think of it as fast prototyping — but with your self.

The next time you face a what-got-you-here-won’t-get-to-there moment, you have a choice about what definition of authenticity you’ll hold yourself to. Are you going to favor the insecure, conservative, historical self? Or will you choose to learn and act your way into becoming truly authentic?

This post was adapted from a TEDxLondonBusinessSchool Talk. Watch it here: