Authenticity is a hot word in leadership discussions. The modern workplace is more informal and less hierarchical than in the past. Command-and-control management doesn’t fly with people hired for their creative brainpower. They want leaders who inspire them, and give them reasons for working beyond a paycheck.
But all this requires a nuanced understanding of what “authenticity” should mean. In a business context, it doesn’t mean the “be yourself” phrase that probably pops into your mind first. For evidence of this, consider that many of Donald Trump’s supporters praise him for what they view as authenticity. He says what he thinks. He doesn’t seem to care what other people think of that. Yet business leaders emulating this approach might quickly find themselves in trouble. “Being authentic is much more than ‘being yourself,'” says Gareth Jones, coauthor of Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization. “If you want to be a leader, you have to be yourself—skillfully.”
To be themselves—skillfully—smart leaders first recognize that authenticity is not about behaving in the exact same way, regardless of context. You may be a casual person, but dressing in shorts when other people expect suits sends a message of disrespect. “It’s not about style. It’s the person inside of you,” says Bill George, author of Discover Your True North: Becoming an Authentic Leader.
And even with this, you need to think about how the person inside of you comes across. In your personal life, you may love to share your religious faith because it’s what motivates you and inspires you. That doesn’t mean you should proselytize in staff meetings.
Second, smart leaders recognize that “effective leadership is a skillful, authentic role performance,” says Jones. You might be the kind of person who, deep down, likes to sit in the hotel and watch movies when you’re jet-lagged. But if you’ve jetted in somewhere to boost morale and excite people about your mission, leadership means you need to suit up and do what they are expecting you do.
Here’s a more workable definition of authenticity in a business context. It’s about being consistent in word and deed, having the same fundamental character in different roles, and being comfortable with your past. Indeed, the first definition of “authentic” that pops up when I type it in Google is “of undisputed origins.” “You can change your future, but you can’t change your past,” says Jones. “Your past made you who you are.”
That doesn’t mean authentic leaders need perfect stories explaining all their life choices. “I think storytelling has become a bit of a kind of fad,” says Jones. There is nothing authentic about hunting through past events with a coach to determine a story that ties neatly to your current product line.
Understanding what shaped you can help you interact with other people without the barriers that lead to disengagement. “Authentic leadership is inherently a developmental process,” says George. It’s about becoming “the person you are created to be.”