I have worked with teenagers for years, and one of their defining characteristics is a common dislike for hypocrisy. That is not to say that they don’t also demonstrate hypocrisy and wear masks themselves, but as a whole, they don’t like it when adults say one thing and do another. They use the term “hypocrite” to describe this behavior, but there are other words that also apply: credible, genuine, real, or authentic. This belief or feeling, though, is not just true for teenagers; everyone dislikes hypocrisy and wants to see authenticity. This is a foundational principle that emerged in Kouzes & Posner’s leadership research, published in The Leadership Challenge, revealing that, “more than anything, people want leaders who are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership” (p. 32). This led to their statement of “The First Law of Leadership: if you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message” (p. 33).
According to Peter Northouse, in Leadership: Theory and Practice, authentic leadership is leadership that is transparent, morally grounded, and responsive to people’s needs and values (p. 282), and is developmental (a life-long process), intrapersonal (within), and interpersonal (relationship). In other words, authenticity is all about being genuine, real, and trustworthy, both with yourself and with others, and about showing genuine care for the best interest of others. Being authentic means being genuine, consistently matching your walk with your talk, and it is absolutely critical to effective leadership.
The most important component of authenticity is honesty. It is honesty that makes someone believable and trustworthy, because it becomes the visible evidence of integrity. According to Kouzes and Posner: “Regardless of what leaders say about their own integrity, people wait to be shown; they observe the behavior. Consistency between word and deed is how people judge someone to be honest” (p. 28). You know this to be true. You can think of examples in your own experience of people who were dishonest and lacked integrity, and you know what you thought about those people and how it affected your level of trust. I don’t think anyone would question the significance of honesty. I think we also know that the “proof is in the pudding” – we decide someone’s honesty based on the actions that we see.
So besides the characteristic of honesty, what does authenticity look like? First, what it does not look like is imitation. To be authentic, you must be you, not someone else, and sometimes that is much more difficult than we realize. It’s fairly easy for us to try to take on attributes and characteristics of people we look up to, and it’s also appealing to try to imitate others who we want to be like. But the truth is, “no one can be authentic by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else” (George, et. al., Discovering your authentic leadership, p. 163). Keep in mind, it is true that there are some things we do because we have been exposed to an influential person in our lives; for example, I can point out a number of my own behaviors that reflect my father’s influence, and I can also describe important ways in which my wife has shaped who I am. However, being affected by their influence does not mean that I am being them. Rather, everything I have learned has had to be applied in a way that matches my own personality and characteristics. I still have to be me.
Then, authenticity means that people can trust you to “DWYSYWD: Do What You Say You Will Do. DWYSYWD has two essential elements: say and do. To be credible in action, leaders must be clear about their beliefs; they must know what they stand for. That’s the ‘say’ part. Then they must put what they say into practice: they must act on their beliefs and’“do'” (Kouzes and Posner, p. 38). This characteristic will most clearly be revealed when the pressure is on and the challenge is great. Without question, “the values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you will not know what your true values are until they are tested under pressure” (George, et. al., pp. 169-170). When the heat is turned up, the fire will usually reveal your true colors, and that’s when people can see if your authenticity is real.
The conclusion, then, is that a leader must be authentic in order to be effective. People must be able to tell that you are genuine, that you are who you say you are because you do what you say you will do. Whether you realize it or not, you are being watched by your people, your family, your customers, and your community, so that they can determine if you are believable and therefore trustworthy. And if they don’t trust you, they won’t follow you. That’s why I believe that authenticity needs to be at the top of the list for every leader.
George, B., Sims, P., McLean, A. N., and Mayer, D., “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (2011). Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.
Kouzes, J. M., and Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd Ed.). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and Practice (6th Ed.). Sage Publications: Los Angeles, CA.