What Is Authentic Leadership, Really?

By: The Humphrey Group

Authentic leadership has gone from buzzword to business imperative, and with good reason. Recent research on employee engagement shows a strong correlation between high engagement and the perceived authenticity of leaders. If people see you as genuine, walking the walk, and working in alignment with your true values, they are much more likely to follow you. What's more, we also know that authenticity increases leader engagement, too. When you bring your whole self to work, you feel better about the work that you do and your relationships with others. It's a win-win, and a virtuous cycle. But what is authentic leadership, really?

At the risk of sounding obvious, it's worth pointing out that authentic leadership combines two key concepts:

  1. Authenticity is being true to yourself. 
  2. Leadership is inspiring others to follow you. 

So, authentic leadership is a balancing act. It's about finding the sweet spot where you inspire others by being true to you. It's about drawing on your unique character, your values, and your self-awareness to lead in a way that creates followership precisely because it is both genuine and aware of the needs of others at the same time. It's too simplistic to say that authenticity is always good, and that the more authenticity you serve up, the better your leadership will be. There are times when it's not about you, and the needs of your audience are more important than what is comfortable or preferable for you. At the same time, there are situations that call for our authenticity, even when it might be uncomfortable, or when our audience might not agree with our beliefs.

The way we balance authenticity and audience-centeredness will shift from situation to situation. There is nothing false or fake about this. To find the right balance, you need to have enough self-awareness to develop a style that can "flex," and that can flex intentionally. The ability to adapt your style means you have enough self awareness and social awareness to know what a situation requires from you.

Find your Balance
How can you learn to flex your style in a way that balances authenticity and audience-centeredness? The truth is, sometimes it’s easy and the most natural thing in the world. And other times, it feels like a fine balance. The diagram below is a helpful way to visualize what this balance can look like and how leaders need to shift dynamically day-to-day, even meeting-to-meeting.



The High Authenticity/Low Audience Centered Style 

When you are communicating in this style, you say exactly what you're thinking or feeling without considering the impact on your audience. This is a “speaking your truth,” “telling it like it is,” “saying what needs to be said” kind of leadership style. When used intentionally and strategically, this style of communication can be perceived as courageous and disruptive (in a positive way). For example, imagine that someone has made a sexist comment, and you decide to speak up about it. This may not sit well with your audience, but you might decide at that moment that you must address it. 

When used unintentionally or as a reaction to stress, this communication style can make you seem self-centered or lacking in empathy. For example, imagine you are leading a team meeting and you decide to begin by being honest about how uncertain you are about the future of the company. While this might be authentic, it isn’t very audience-centered. Your team is looking to you for guidance and clarity. By focusing on authenticity, you’ve put your needs above theirs in that moment. 


The Low Audience-Centered/Low Authenticity Style

When you are communicating in this style, you don’t feel like yourself and your audience isn’t inspired. Unfortunately, we all encounter situations like this. Usually, we end up feeling regret for the way we communicated. For example, think of the last time you were stressed and impatient in a meeting and ending up saying something that you didn’t even really mean, and that hurt a colleague or made them angry. Afterward, you end up asking yourself, “why did I say that?” I didn’t even mean it!”. You weren’t true to yourself or your values, and your audience certainly wasn’t inspired. 

This communication style can also pop up when you’re feeling backed into a corner. You want to be true to yourself but you don’t feel like you can be completely honest with the person you’re speaking to, and what you end up saying is a “lose-lose”-- you’re not being authentic and your audience feels that. 

While neither of these situations is desirable, it’s important to recognize what kind of people, situations, or problems pushes our communication into this style.


The Low Authenticity/High Audience Centered Style

When you’re communicating in this style, you aren’t bringing your true self to the table because you’re so focused on serving your audience. You can think of this as the “people pleaser” style– a way of leading that is so focused on making others happy that you lose yourself. 

You can also think of this style in a more positive way. There are situations that simply don’t call for a focus on yourself and that demand a full focus on those you are leading. In these situations, lower authenticity and higher audience-centeredness is the appropriate balance. For example, imagine you are in conflict with a colleague about a project because you have opposing views about the approach. You might decide that this is not the hill you want to die on, and “go with the flow” rather than dig in your heels. Allowing someone else’s values to dictate the direction you take is sometimes the right choice for a leader. 


The High Authenticity/High Audience Centered Style 

In this communication style, you are being true to you and it resonates well with your audience. You can think of this as flow state, the “win-win,” or the absolutely even balance between authenticity and audience-centeredness. For example, imagine you're speaking passionately about a topic you care about. Your audience is inspired by your passion. They may or may not agree, but they appreciate your perspective and they’re willing to listen to and act on your ideas. 

There’s really no downside to being in this flow state where everyone feels satisfied. But it’s not realistic to think we can lead from this place of precise balance at all times.  

As you can see from the examples, none of these styles is always good or always bad. Leaders must be able to move from style to style depending on the situation they find themselves in. Over the course of a day (or even over the course of a single meeting!) you will likely find yourself in all 4 quadrants. Can you think of a time when you were in each quadrant? What did your communication sound like? How did it feel?


Ready to bring your authentic self to work?

Support the culture of your workplace with The Humphrey Group’s Authentic Leadership learning experience, part of our Reflection Stream of offerings.