I have heard the term “authentic leadership” used frequently of late, and each time it is used in such a way as to describe one of the many people I have come to admire. So, it must be a positive behavioral trait, right? what does it really mean to be an authentic leader? The term leader is a gimme, but what about authentic?

Authentic: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

The definition of authentic tells me that encouraging authenticity amongst leaders isn’t always a good thing. Not all individuals in leadership are effective when they are truly authentic. Numerous leaders have been fired for being authentic, many junior Sailors have terminated their service in the Navy because poor leaders were authentic, many parents have done irreparable damage to their children because they chose to be authentic, and many bad people are in jail because they a demonstrated their authentic conduct. Evidently, this is another case where the adjective is far less important than the traits that make up the noun.

Before we applaud authenticity, we better have a good appreciation for the true personality, spirit, and character we are encouraging the individual to demonstrate. I am of the opinion that it is far more important that we invite authentic followership. And, in doing so, elevate those individuals whose authentic selves represent the best of the best.

Personally and professionally, I want to spend time with people who are authentic, but only after they have revealed their true selves. I see it all too often where poor leaders are authentic to their juniors, a little less genuine to their peers, and a complete fraud to their seniors (one of the reasons I am such a fan of 360-degree feedback). Unfortunately, they are given positions of increased authority and responsibility based purely on the perceptions they have created in the eyes of their seniors, their inauthentic self. The problem for these inauthentic individuals (and the teams they lead) comes when they have little choice but to demonstrate their authentic self for all to see.

With the increase in Commanding Officers failing of late, I can’t help but wonder if these poor leaders are finally revealing their authenticity after fooling the system for years. Then again, might these be great leaders who are making some poor decisions? I don’t have the answer. Though, I do believe that by encouraging a culture of authentic followership we would minimize any meaningful speculation that the former is the case.

As long as we agree that authentic leadership (and followership) is about acting with passion and integrity, having respect and love for others, and inspiring each other to achieve greatness, we should encourage authenticity. For those of us in leadership positions, we might consider creating opportunities for all to reveal their (good, bad or indifferent) authentic selves and honestly document what we observe. In doing so, we would know for whom we should be blocking while identifying those whom we should encourage to leave the team.

Let’s continue to lead, follow, and parent authentically, but let’s do so based upon the agreement we just made.

  • How authentic are you?
  • Are you assessing the authenticity of your followers?
  • Which of your followers will be the most authentic leaders?