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Why authentic leadership comes loaded with challenges


Views have shifted and there is no longer a single “hero” version of leadership to which we should all aspire.

By Sue Rosen 14 minute read

“Am I being too authentic?” asked one of my clients as she started in a new CFO role and worried that the existing team found her “too much”.

Sandra is a vivacious people-oriented leader who wears her heart on her sleeve and she was brought into the organisation to transform the way the finance team operates.

People were unsettled by her approach as it was so different from that of her predecessor and required them to be more transparent about what was happening in both the team and the organisation. They found her energy overwhelming and resisted her invitation to open up.

Hence her question. But is there even such as thing as too authentic?

And herein lies the challenge of authenticity: it sounds like it should be easy. We are exhorted to bring our whole selves to work, which many of us interpret as, “This is who I am, take me or leave me”.

Over the last two decades, views on leadership have shifted and there is recognition that there is no one single “hero” version of leadership to which we should all aspire. Authenticity has become a buzzword in leadership circles yet it can still be difficult to understand what it really means in practice.

Does it mean we can show up however we like and express how we feel in the moment?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines authenticity as the quality of being real or true.

As a leader, I could claim that I am true to myself when I shout at my peers because I feel frustrated by their actions, yet it is not a helpful way to behave and is unlikely to be effective as a means to achieve our desired outcomes.

In respect of leadership, I believe authenticity means acting in alignment with your personal values and amplifying the best aspects of yourself in accordance with those values. It is about embracing your unique strengths and experiences and bringing all that you have learned to your leadership. That means demonstrating the courage to stand in your values when the world is pulling you in multiple directions while recognising that even our own values can be in conflict with one another at times.

I can be a genuinely kind person who nurtures staff and I can also have to take a decision to retrench staff to ensure that the company stays in business. At times like this, we need to challenge ourselves to be both courageous and compassionate.

As leaders, our emotional state is highly contagious to other members of our team so as authentic leaders we need to be mindful of how we express our emotions. This does not mean that we never express sadness or disappointment, but rather that we learn how to express our emotions in ways appropriate to the context.

Authenticity must also allow for growth and development. After all, what is right for one situation is not necessarily right for the next. As we grow and learn from our experiences we adapt and discover new ways of being and leading. A rigid view of who we are as leaders will keep us stuck in one spot.

The importance of trust

As we progress into senior leadership roles our technical skills are no longer the differentiator between effective and ineffective leadership. Our roles require us to influence decision making and inspire others to work towards our organisational goals. We can only do that if we can build trust.

Most of us intuitively understand that we struggle to trust people whose words do not align with their actions and we build connections more easily with people who we sense are genuine in how they operate.

This becomes particularly important when we operate under pressure and need the support of our team members or peers in difficult situations, which is why how we convey our values and how our actions are perceived is critical.

It requires us to express our values and our purpose and to amplify the best aspects of ourselves. This in turn paves the way for us to embrace diversity in all its forms, and for those around us to bring all of their strengths and experiences to work, enabling them to make their best contribution.

As individuals, we can also benefit from bringing our authenticity to work. Wearing a metaphorical mask to hide or suppress key elements of ourselves is exhausting so developing our ability to express ourselves will free up energy to focus on the complex challenges we have at work.

Given that being an authentic leader is not as easy as simply showing up as you are, how do you become an authentic leader?

Develop self-awareness

Becoming an authentic leader starts with knowing yourself and developing your self-awareness. Acceptance of who we are is necessary before we can change, which is one of the great paradoxes of life (as identified by Carl Jung).

As accountants, we work in our heads most of the time and often we have progressed on a career trajectory because it was the predetermined path or was expected of us, not because we made intentional choices.

To develop self-awareness, which is the first step towards improved emotional intelligence, we must reconnect our head with our heart. Self-awareness is our ability to be aware of our inner experiences and then make conscious choices around how we respond and behave, and we can only do this if our whole body is connected.

We need to carve out space and time for deep inward reflection and exploring our personal values and motivations.

Know your story

As we begin to understand what is important to us, we also have the opportunity to re-author our stories around how we got to where we are now, for as novelist John Barth wrote, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” The stories of our formative experiences, our beliefs, our family and our culture enable us to understand more about who we are and as we explore them, we start to see our blind spots and the anchors that have been holding us back.

This requires vulnerability to explore our own failings and mistakes and to make the conscious choice to learn from them.

Our life stories can also provide the inspiration for connecting with our purpose, identifying what qualities we want to bring to our leadership, leveraging our strengths and articulating what impact we wish to have on the world.

Seek feedback

Another critical step in being authentic as a leader is to ask for feedback, whether that is formal or informal. Often how we are perceived by others is not aligned with how we would like to be seen and is not congruent with our intentions so seeking feedback in a constructive way and ensuring that we can listen to it with an open mind is fundamental to us understanding what others see.

Sandra knew who she was and how she wanted to operate as a leader, however, she was not paying enough attention to the context in which she was operating. Each of our strengths has a potential shadow side and she needed to understand that her energy and desire to make quick changes was leaving people behind. She needed to dial up her emotional intelligence around the needs of others and spend more time clarifying the reasons for the changes.

Being authentic does not excuse us from asking the question: “What is needed here and now?” Sandra needed to tread more gently, understand the extremely conservative environment she had stepped into, and act with greater sensitivity.

For another more introverted CFO, it may feel uncomfortable or inauthentic to get on stage and talk about the successes of their organisation but if the reason for doing so is connected to their purpose, for example, the opportunity to raise capital to grow the business, then this can provide the motivation to move beyond their comfort zone.

Career advancement always requires us to move beyond our comfort zone and sometimes it will feel like we are being pushed to be inauthentic, however, with practice and a willingness to keep exploring our stories and evolving our sense of identity, we will stretch our capacity as leaders.

Development as an authentic leader does come with challenges, and having a support team around you will make this easier. You need those people with whom you can be yourself, warts and all, and those people who will call out behaviour when it is misaligned with your espoused values.

Leadership is a practice, not a destination, and a part of the practice is continually reviewing what is authentic for me now in this situation, and how can I evolve into being the leader I wish to be.

Sue Rosen is the principal of Sue Rosen Executive Coaching.

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