“Authentic leadership” is popping up everywhere in leadership literature these days. It’s one of those phrases that’s easy to get behind—of course I want to be an authentic leader! But the term is used so often that we assume we’re all on the same page as to what it means.
Authenticity can mean a lot of different things to different people; there are a million ways to define it in a way that expresses how you personally want to show up as a leader.
And because you can’t embody it until you are clear on what it is, I believe it’s worth taking the time to slow down and unpack what leading authentically means to you.
Here are some ways that I’ve seen it framed:
- Authentic leadership could mean building honest relationships through transparency.
- It could also mean cultivating self-awareness so that your behaviors truly match your intentions.
- It could mean conveying real emotions and candor rather than shiny, happy, professionalism.
- It could mean bringing your whole self to work—how you dress, how you wear your hair, and interacting as you feel comfortable rather than as a blazer-wearing actor performing the role of Leader.
- Or it could mean being true to yourself at work.
The word authentic comes from the Greek word authentikos, meaning “original, genuine,” which was actually derived from the word for authority, authentes "acting on one's own authority."
It can be difficult, though, to pin down exactly what our own genuine authority is—especially for women.
We play so many different roles in different spaces that, when it comes to being true to ourselves, we may need to ask: “Which self?”
Harvard Business Review’s Women at Work podcast summed this up beautifully in their episode on leading with authenticity: "There’s a challenge for women who want to be authentic at work. We’re daughters, mothers, sisters, bosses; and all these different roles can be tough to reconcile. So while authentic leadership is often viewed as geared toward a single true norm, as women we live in a multi-polar world. How can we be true to ourselves when there are so many competing selves?"
When I think about this division of roles and how it demands that we have many authentic selves, it makes my head spin. I feel overwhelmed, like I can’t possibly win.
I like to take a more connected approach: to me, authentic leadership means knowing myself and feeling a grounded confidence in who I am, what I stand for, and what I bring to the table. My values are the foundation that runs underneath all of this—the core beliefs that I can’t help but live by in all areas of my life.
My husband is more comfortable with compartmentalizing his roles; for him, it’s more about being true to himself in the current situation or context.
There is also a school of thought, believe it or not, that advocates for inauthentic leadership. Herminia Ibarra, professor of leadership and author of “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader,” claims that there is something called “the authenticity paradox:” when you are promoted to a new leadership level, you’ll need to act in new ways that fall outside of your comfort zone of what feels true to you. She says, “The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are—doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become.”
Before you can be an authentic leader, you need to know what authenticity means to you. There are no wrong answers—but you can’t step into your authentic leadership until you define it clearly for yourself.
It’s personal—that’s why this article offers more questions than answers. And in that spirit, here are five questions to ask yourself in order to define your authentic leadership:
- Think of someone who you look up to as an authentic leader. What is it about them that signals their authenticity?
- When do you feel most authentically yourself?
- What do you believe about the balance between acting authentically and stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone?
- Which of the many roles you play feel like conflict with your role as a leader? How might you reconcile those conflicts by either connecting or compartmentalizing your roles?
- And the kicker: What does authentic leadership mean to you?
Carole Ann Penney, Strategic Career Coach & Founder of Penney Leadership, develops mission-driven leaders who are ready to take the next steps in their career development. She is a member of The Lady Project’s Board of Directors and mentors emerging female leaders through Brown University's Women's Launch Pad Program. When she is not coaching, she’s developing the most important emerging leader in her life—her three-year-old daughter, Avery Jean. Connect with her at: LinkedIn, Instagram.