Authenticity and Leadership

Leadership is all about causing others to want to follow. In a time of political scandals perpetrated by hypocritical officials; of news organizations presenting opinions as if they were obvious facts; and organizations faltering in their willingness to honor explicit promises to both their customers and their employees, skepticism abounds. Economic institutions and economic policy makers have failed us often while pursuing their own self-serving ends. Trustworthiness is often seen as an illusory concept at best. Citizens, as a result, are both weary and weary of the communities in which they live and work. At the same time, for many of the same reasons, there is tremendous pressure on organizations to change and adapt to new market realities. Calls to sacrifice and embrace difficult changes often fall on cynical ears. People are listening for hollow words. They are looking for disparities between espoused and lived values. They are looking for the catch. Under these conditions, anything less than authenticity on the part of a leader runs a serious risk of farther alienating their constituencies.

A dictionary definition of authentic defines it as something, “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; reliable; trustworthy.” This definition both highlights the dangers and points to the most promising solutions for leaders across a broad spectrum of today’s organizations. The implications for success point to the facts that a leader needs to make a compelling case for change, needs to walk the talk, and needs to be authentically connected to those whom he or she is attempting to lead.

Making a Compelling Case for Change

If one wants to inspire others to follow with trust and enthusiasm then mere pronouncements of our intentions are insufficient. Leaders could get things off to a better start if they hold preliminary conversations with key stakeholders and the natural leaders in the organization to set the stage for more official initiatives. In these conversations the purpose is to listen to input, to market her ideas, and to present a broader vision than the day-to-day perspectives of the people. That vision must include, “What’s in it for you” as well as “What’s in it for us.” For people to truly buy in they have to understand the purpose of the change you are promoting. You can’t assume that they get it. Due to past half-hearted or insincere actions you can’t simply count on their good will to carry the day.

Once the ground has been prepared the leaders job will be made easier if he enlists others in joining him in presenting the case for change throughout the organization. If the objections of other leaders can be overcome, and if they see how they can sell the vision to their direct reports, you are much more likely to see the organization move in a coordinated fashion to realize the vision. Too often this infrastructure for change is neglected. Sure, it takes time and effort. But, it certainly communicates the authenticity of your commitment to making it work. It communicates that, indeed, you care enough about the people involved being successful that you will invest that time in garnering their support and cooperation. That can’t be faked. It won’t work to simply say it. The days of naïve trust are over. It must be real.

Walking the Talk

Once the leader has set the stage and “marketed” the vision, the task becomes living the vision authentically. The folks are watching. The BS detectors are on. People, especially the most cynical or skeptical are watching for inconsistencies between your words and deeds. They are looking for signs that things aren’t really going to change. They will hunker down and wait for this urgent initiative to get lost in the day-to-day pressures and distractions. It has been reported that back in the 90’s the workers at Harley Davidson coined the term, “An AFP” to describe management initiatives that were inauthentic. Such experiences were shared by many people in diverse organizations. The public translation for an AFP was “another fine program.” It dripped with sarcasm and referred to programs that came out of the latest business best seller. These were initiatives where the intentions were good, but a true commitment hadn’t been made. These were things that, “You should do” rather than “What we are going to do.” Needless to say the AFPs were doomed before they got any traction.

If the vision is authentic, the leaders must consistently act in vision-supporting ways. People always believe actions over words; in spite of the common fact that their leader hope’s that words will be sufficient. If you expect that others will change while you continue on without changing your behavior you will be disappointed. It’s the leader’s job to go first. That’s what leading means. It takes inner strength, but without it, people see only weakness and they won’t follow a leader they don’t respect. While this may be difficult, it is infinitely more productive than watching the initiative fail and blaming your work force.

Walking the talk means that you are willing to both follow-up and follow- through. Too often people are told that a behavior is important without anyone ever checking to ensure that it is happening or without anyone helping to remove the current barriers to what you say is vitally important. If you say that something is important and then never follow- up to ensure it, you cannot expect anyone to believe that you mean it. It obviously isn’t that important.

Authentic Connections

Another critical step for the leader is to demonstrate a genuine concern for the success of the team. This means giving encouragement, taking time to actively listen to what people have to say, and ensuring that the tools and resources are available to support the change you want to create. Phony posturing or glad handing is as transparent as glass. Your interest must be seen as authentic and it can’t be faked if people are to be inspired to make difficult changes.

No matter how large or small the organization people will work harder for a leader who they feel “have their backs.” Without that trust, people become cynical and work to serve their own best interests regardless of its effect on the overall organization. Leaders can best build trust by first being trustworthy. You lead. You’ll have to learn to recognize legitimate concerns and complaints. You’ll have to first treat peoples’ issues as if they are raised in good faith. It takes courage to tell the leader bad news. That isn’t disloyalty; it’s a genuine commitment to realizing the vision. Such feedback must be honestly considered. If the person’s concerns are ill founded, then help them to adjust their points of view. If the feedback is reasonable, even if difficult, you must act on it if you wish to keep your credibility – and the word will spread quickly if you don’t.

Forming authentic connections between a leader and the organization makes demands upon the leader. Perhaps that’s why these connections are as rare as they are. Moral courage, sincere appreciation (even for people whom you might not like personally) and a thick skin are working necessities for the authentic leader. It is easier to be authentic if the entire leadership team is supportive and all are on the same page. Once again, to make this happen the leader must go first. If you are waiting for others you aren’t leading.

Finally, conflict and disagreement can be healthy signs of growth. It’s been said that the only place where you get movement without friction is in outer space. If you are operating in this world expect it. It is unaddressed or unresolved conflict that is a problem. Invite objections. Seek out and embrace contrary opinions. These are the naturally occurring forces that lead us to the most robust solutions. You improve the process or you benefit from creating teachable moments, both take you closer to the goal. Once again, lip service only is deadly. Authenticity is required.


Organizational health depends, in part, on the authenticity of its leader. A leader’s shortcomings is often the reason why there are so many weak and ailing organizations. That’s why there are so many inadequate leaders in positions of authority. To create or sustain a healthy, adaptive organization a leader must be respected; be seen as authentic, reliable, and trustworthy. While the following list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, an authentic leader must engage in several activities if he or she is to be believed and followed. The leader must articulate and disseminate an authentic case for change. A leader must marshal the energies of the entire group in pulling toward the goal. No leader can make it happen on his or her own. He or she must walk the talk. She or he must make and maintain authentic connections with the people who labor to create the success of the organization. These aren’t easy tasks. That’s why good leaders are so valuable, so admired. It is insufficient to hold back and blame the work force when initiatives fail. You can create the adaptations that you envision will lead to success. But, be aware, authenticity is required.