Sandra Sieb & Tim Laporte

The Lab: 'Can a Leader be too Authentic?' Posts from The Lab

Our latest Lab session had our community of enquiry grappling with the complex question of authenticity in the context of leadership. Both of us cherish the notion of the authentic self, and don’t hesitate to encourage our clients to become more authentic in the way they conduct themselves in their environments.

Yet, lately, some of our clients’ experiences have forced us to revisit our thoughts on what it takes to be an effective authentic leader. Indeed, recently a couple of our clients have gotten themselves into trouble by being a little too authentic — where their commitment to openly sharing their thoughts and feelings has been seen as impacting negatively on their capacity to successfully lead. In light of this, we decided to explore and refine our definition of authenticity in the context of good leadership practices. And what better way to do this than taking the question to our Sydney- and Melbourne-based communities of enquiry…?! Below we share with you some of the themes that came up in our conversations. 


The central question we set out to explore was “Can a leader be too authentic?” We kicked off the conversation by asking participants two things:

  1. Is the question of whether you’re being authentic in your role as leader even on your radar? (...or are we the only ones preoccupying ourselves with such questions?!)

  2. When you hear about someone else being ‘authentic’, what comes to mind? What do you see? And how do you feel?

This was all we needed to start off some rich conversation.

From the first question, it was clear that authenticity is indeed a hot topic for leaders, and important to the majority of us present in the room. It was also clear that the very concept of authenticity was a complex question in itself – let alone what authenticity in a leadership contextmight look like. So, we took a step back to begin by simply sharing what each of us meant by the term ‘authenticity’.

Authenticity = be your true self, but which ‘self’?

Although there were many different takes on the notion of ‘authenticity’, a central theme was “being your true self”; “it’s who I am”. But this led us to ask: Which ‘self’? The self I am today? Or the self I was yesterday? Is it my ‘real’ self? Or my ‘ideal’ self? And anyway, do we ever really know who we truly are?

In her very interesting book, The Art of Authenticity, Karissa Thacker proposes the concept of ‘selves’, plural, over a fixed, singular ‘self’. Thacker suggests that this plurality of selves is a more realistic view of who we are, since it allows us to encompass the multi-dimensional richness of our lives. Citing Carol Dweck and the famous concept of fixed vs. growth mindset, she also points out that as a concept, ‘selves’, is more conducive to the notion of self-growth, since the concept of a single fixed self restricts us to a rigid view of ourselves that we might be tempted to work hard to protect. The concept of a fixed self also implies that you can simply “figure yourself out” — as though there’s a “self-awareness box” that you can simply tick off once you’ve figured it out! ….Not quite the way it works unfortunately — self-awareness certainly seems to be a lifelong journey!

Beyond this first challenge of defining which ‘self’ we are being true to when we are ‘being authentic’, we had another complexity to tackle. As one participant put it, “What does it mean to ‘be’ authentic?”; “How do you know when you are?”

What does it mean to ‘be authentic’?

For many participants, being authentic was first and foremost a feeling. “When I’m not authentic, I feel uncomfortable, I cringe”. For others, being authentic was akin to being transparent; “It’s about being undefended and open”. And for some amongst us, it was about being “real” versus “pretending”; about being “congruent inside out”; about being “true to my core intrinsic values”; about “being consistent” and “knowing your story”.

But then someone challenged our thinking with the reflection that authenticity seemed to be more about how we feel, and that being true to one’s self — and to one’s beliefs — seemed to be more about‘integrity’ than ‘authenticity’! This opens up a question yet to be explored in depth — are authenticity and integrity two sides of the same coin, then...?

The concept of ‘safety’ was another recurrent theme in our conversations. Many of us were in agreement that it was easier to be authentic when you felt ‘safe’, since this is a context where we typically feel more confident. This led us to explore in more depth the link between ‘authenticity’ and ‘courage’.

 Is authenticity about being courageous?

Certainly, an important aspect of being ‘authentic’ is having the courage to be yourself, to stand up for your own points of views regardless of what others may think. And from that perspective, perhaps the greater your positional power, the easier it is for you to be brave enough to be true to yourself…? This view was challenged by some, who felt they had been authentic (and courageous) at very early stages of their career — even in contexts where they had a lot to lose.

Does size matter?

We then wondered if being authentic was a function of the size of an organisation, with the assumption that smaller organisations might be more conducive to authenticity. Again, this perspective was challenged by a number of participants, who felt they were able to be authentic despite working in rather large organisations.

From there, our conversation evolved towards authenticity in leadership, because, as someone said, “being authentic and being an authentic leader is not the same thing!”

Authenticity — intrinsically self-focussed

The concept of authenticity is a beautiful thing, but it’s fundamentally a self-focussed notion. It’s all about being aware of who you are, and what you feel and think. But our ‘selves’ don’t operate in a vacuum! We operate in an environment, with other people with whom we interact on a daily basis. Being so inwardly-facing is, therefore, an issue — especially in a leadership context. Not to mention that as one participant said,  “being yourself is awesome, but it has some limitations!” ; “what if my ‘self’ is screwed up?”, another wondered. And as Tim shared in one of his recent posts, many truly terrible leaders, like Hitler and Stalin, can arguably be labelled ‘authentic leaders’.

More importantly, as we all agreed, leadership is very much about ‘others’ (although, granted, some leaders tend to hold a much more narcissistic view of leadership!). Ideally, you lead from a ‘selfless’ place, a place where you put your own needs aside for the sake of the people you have the privilege to lead. So as I shared on the night, to me it seems ‘leadership’ is a bigger concept than ‘authenticity’.

Adding empathy into the mix

On reflection, we came to agree that introducing the concept of ‘empathy’  might allow us to better understand what was at play in successful instances of authenticity in leadership.

It is thanks to empathy — the ability to understand and share the feeling of others — that, as a leader, you’re able to understand what your followers need from you. Admittedly though, this could be easily be mistaken for being overly focussed on the needs of others in an attempt to please and be liked, which would be the opposite of being authentic!

Understanding the needs of your followers is about understanding what kind of support they need from you to perform at their best. At times, this might mean displaying behaviour that might be at odds with what you’re actually feeling, because that’s what someone needs to feel supported and grow. And pragmatically, there are certainly times when you’ll need to be inspiring despite feeling anything but inspiring! So at times, being an authentic leader might actually mean having the courage to not be ‘you’.

At times also, your roles and responsibilities as a leader might mean you can’t share sensitive information that you’re privy to, even if you know it will impact your team and you feel like sharing the information with them.

At this point it’s worth going back to the second question we asked to kick off the conversation — how does an authentic leader make you feel? A common perspective was that an authentic leader is “someone who makes me feel safe”, someone who encourages others to bring out their best self their ‘authentic self’ at work. In a nutshell, we came to agree that if a leader is being their authentic self, this sends out a message that it’s safe for others to do so too.

So, being an authentic leader is much more complex than simply being authentic at work. As one of our participants pointed out, “it requires talent”, “it requires knowing what and when to share some parts of you”. There’s no doubt that being strategic about what you decide to share or not share might create some internal dissonance, and might even feel at times machiavellian! However, this might be the compromise we have to make in exchange of the privilege to lead people…

Although we chose not to share it on the night in order to let participants tap into their own reflections, the emergent ‘academic’ theory of Authentic Leadership developed by Avolio, Luthans & Walumbwa (2004) actually reflects the complexity of what it means to be a ‘good’ authentic leader, and addresses many of the questions we raised on these Lab nights.

 According to them, Authentic Leadership is comprised of four components: 

  1. Self-awareness: An ongoing process of reflection and re-examination by the leader of his or her own strengths, weaknesses, and values. This point addresses the ‘imperfect self’ and the challenge of consistency — you can’t give a consistent impression of yourself if you don’t know who you are, or if your opinions change all the time.
  2. Relational Transparency: Open sharing by the leader of his or her own thoughts and beliefs, balanced by a minimisation of inappropriate emotions. This point entails a degree of emotional self-control which, in the situations we referred to earlier, our clients didn’t have enough of. As a result, their strong (and negative) emotions contaminated their workplace relationships and their ability to lead effectively.
  3. Balanced Processing: Solicitation by the leader of opposing viewpoints and fair-minded consideration of those viewpoints without a bias towards their own view. This point is about not being self-centered, and not viewing your perspective as the best, or only, one!
  4. Internalised Moral Perspective: A positive ethical foundation adhered to by the leader in his or her relationships and decisions, that is resistant to outside pressures — like an active GPS compass. This is a key element to guaranteeing that an authentic leader is also an ethical one.

So, in conclusion, can a leader be too authentic?

Well, it all depends on which definition we take! If a leader understands the concept of ‘authenticity’ as them being 100% true to themselves and openly sharing their own thoughts and feelings in all circumstances, without an appreciation of the broader context and the responsibilities that come with a leadership role — then yes, a leader can be too authentic.

‘Mindful self-awareness’ might be the essential ingredient for effective authentic leadership

It seems that in many ways, the key to combining authenticity with effective leadership is a leader’s capacity for what Sandra calls ‘mindful self-awareness’ or the ‘awareness of the self in a context’. This is where an individual is aware of, and sensitive to, the complexities of the specific contexts and situations they find themselves in. This heightened awareness of the complexities provides them with a greater degree of insight into how and why they are responding to any given situation in a certain way, which in turn deepens their ability to be an ‘objective’ observer of their own thoughts and feelings. Once a leader has this greater ‘distance’ from their own thoughts and feelings, they are much better positioned to ‘dial up’ and ‘dial down’ their own responses, depending on the needs of those around them. 

We’ll let the dictionary have the last word ;)

In a final twist of the story, the dictionary definition of ‘authenticity’ actually has nothing to do with ‘sharing’ ourselves, or being transparent! Instead, ‘authenticity’, the dictionary tells us, is “of undisputed origin, genuine”.

Under this light then, we can say with Karissa Thacker that the “art of authenticity” is “a process of inventing yourself” or as Warren Bennis wrote in his book ‘on Becoming a leader‘, Until you make your life your own, you’re walking around in borrowed clothes”.

…. and that could re-open the conversation for quite some time! ☺ 

The Lab is an invitation only event. If you want to join the conversation, drop us a line at [email protected]

Sandra Sieb and Tim Laporte are leadership advisors and co-founders of Leadership Partners. More articles on adult development, complexity theory, leadership and system thinking can be found here

This article is edited by Talia Gill, our brilliant communications specialist

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