Authenticity And Leadership

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand.  My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.  In other words, it is the horizon within which I am capable of taking a stand.

–Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self

The contemporary obsession with authentic leadership says a great deal about the now decades old global leadership crisis.  Ironically, there has never been more time, money, and expertise set aside for leadership development than there is today.

According to research by Development Dimensions International, The Conference Board, and Ernst and Young, companies spend some $50 billion annually on leadership development, and yet we still have the decades-old leadership deficit in politics, business, the professions, and communities at large.  Further studies by McKinsey and Harvard Business Review confirm that investment in leadership development persistently fails to produce results.

And no one knows this better than the people at the coalface.  Every year, surveys show seven out of ten people in the workplace to be disengaged, and a global study recently indicated that eight out of ten workers don’t trust their boss.  Over the past 20 years I have asked hundreds of people in all business categories what percentage of leaders they considered to be effective, and the average response is less than five percent.

The long list of unresolved issues that plague politics and business are glaring proof of the reality of the Global Leadership Crisis.  There is patently something seriously wrong with the way things are being done.

Authentic leadership is obviously a worthwhile goal, but what do we mean by ‘authentic’?  Our word comes from the Ancient Greek ‘authentikos’, and its Latin derivative ‘authenticus’, meaning ‘genuine’.  We use the word to mean real, genuine, or true, as opposed to imaginary, fake, or false.  When we speak of ‘authentic leadership’, we affirm our belief that leadership is either real, genuine, and true, or imaginary, fake, and false.

But surely leadership can only be leadership if it is real, genuine, and true?  Imaginary ‘leadership’ is, by definition, not leadership, and the same goes for fake leadership and false leadership.  They are attempts to pass off as leadership something that is clearly not what it claims to be.  It is because of all the deceit surrounding leadership, that we feel the need to speak of authentic leadership, just as we speak of real gold in contrast to fool’s gold, a genuine masterpiece as against a fake, or a true news report as opposed to a false one.

Using the term ‘authentic’ implies that we know precisely what leadership is.  And there is widespread agreement on what authentic leadership is.  Take a typical definition:

Authentic leadership is a management and leadership approach with an emphasis on building a leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships, where employees feel valued, creating a culture of trust, respect and credibility.”

The qualities that emanate from this statement are legitimacy, honesty, relationship-building, appreciation and recognition, creativity, trust, respect, and credibility.  And while many managers pay lip-service to those attributes, there are none who would openly deny them.

Compare them with the qualities of leadership spontaneously compiled by participants in leadership workshops over the past 20 years: integrity, wisdom, trust, respect, justice, courage, self-control, confidence, hope, compassion, creativity, and team-building.  The same qualities come up again and again, proving that everybody knows what to look for in a leader

On top of this general consensus on the qualities of leadership, there is also pretty much universal agreement about what one has to do to be an effective leader:

  1. Cultivate integrity in self and others
  2. Make things better; leadership means driving change
  3. Envision a better future, specifying purpose, direction, and fulfilment
  4. Understand the potential of your people – help them to be the best they can be
  5. Keep building the team through commitment, performance, and mutual support
  6. Keep morale high by communicating, encouraging, and giving recognition
  7. Promote justice in your workplace and community
  8. Deal firmly with conflict and underperformance
  9. Empower people – delegate and trust them to get on with it
  10. Encourage innovation – develop a culture of creativity

Being an authentic leader is as simple as that.  Sadly, very few people in authority cultivate integrity, or make things better, or hold up an inspirational vision, or promote justice, or build morale, or practice any of those imperatives.  And the age-old problems in politics, business, and relationships continue to generate frustration, disillusionment, cynicism, fear, and rage.

The trouble is that while we all know what it takes to be an authentic leader – not many people seem to know is why there are so few takers.  That is the question that the leadership development industry fails to address; that is why we have a crisis.  So what is to be done?

Here are three principles that will have to be embraced if real progress is to be made:

  1. Training is not enough; leaders must be educated
  2. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality
  3. Leadership is about what sort of person you are, not what you can do

The first principle should be self-evident, but we live in an age that believes in the technical fix and template solutions.  Many people believe that all that is required to become a better leader is a set of easily acquired skills, but some of the most skilled executives are often the worst leaders.  They abuse or misuse their skills, and deploy them unevenly, according to whatever serves their personal agenda or mood in a particular moment.

Our schools and tertiary institutions have promoted the obsession with skills training for more than fifty years, and educational outcomes continue to decline even though more money is repeatedly thrown at the problem.  Technical skills are but a small part of education, targeted at dealing with specific tasks; and they quickly become outdated in a technological society.  Continually up-skilling and learning new skills are facts of life today that poorly educated people struggle to come to terms with, and they are predictably fearful of change.

Education, by contrast, expands knowledge and builds character, equipping a person with a broad understanding of the world and the human condition.  It is about developing a person’s potential, as the Latin roots of the word demonstrate: educare means to lead out from potential to fruition. Education is personal development, and personal development is leadership development, because a properly educated person is more likely to choose the guidelines for leaders that we all agree with.  Moreover, a properly educated person understands the reality of continual change and adapts, easily learning new skills as the need arises.

And the essential core of a proper education is built by reading history and classic literature, a practice long rejected as irrelevant by those who preside over the ongoing decline of educational standards in the western world.

The second principle is about defining reality, or in other words, telling it like it is, speaking the truth.  A leader must define reality to self, loved ones, team members, colleagues, clients, and the world at large.  It is essential to building trust and enabling dialogue, the rational communication between people that defuses conflict and encourages consensus.  Without truth, words like vision, strategy, and commitment simply have no meaning.

Tragically, ideology has made telling the truth far more difficult than ever before.  An ideology is a limited and distorted version of the truth, a fictitious reality constructed to justify and promote a particular agenda.  The electronic media have made ideological thinking all pervasive today, and poor education leaves most people unaware that they are slaves to the half-baked ideas of people pushing self-serving agendas.

But they do know something is wrong.  Seventy percent disengaged at work; Eighty percent don’t trust their boss; and how many would trust their politicians?  And what dishonest person could ever be trusted to sincerely apply the agreed guidelines for leaders?  Authenticity is about seeking the truth about yourself.  And the only way you can do that is by knowing the truth about others in particular and humanity in general.  Leadership demands authenticity.

The third principle says leadership is about what sort of person you are, rather than what you can do.  A big part of education is helping people build character; parents do it for their children, teachers do it for their pupils, and executives should do it for their people.

Character is one’s self-chosen moral identity, expressed in the ways in which one deals with self, other people, and the world at large.  It is influenced by worldview, culture, and personality, but it is shaped by each of us as individuals in our responses to the challenges of life, big and small, in every moment of every day.

In other words, we shape our character, for better or worse, by the attitudes we choose to adopt in any given set of circumstances.  Consider just a few of the innumerable instances in which emotions triggered by certain circumstances invite different attitudinal responses:


































Notice the affinity the positive attitudes have with each other, but consider also the reality of their acknowledged status: they echo the qualities of authentic leadership given up-front, as well as the qualities most people look for in a leader; they include the four Cardinal Virtues of classical philosophy and the three Theological Virtues of faith, hope, and love; they feature in every index of emotional intelligence, and they are what you would want for your children, your workers, and fellow citizens.  Their opposites destroy individuals, relationships, organisations, and nations.

I remain convinced that leadership is best defined as “inspiring others to be the best that they can be in working together for the good of all”.  That definition demands that you live by the three principles espoused above.  When you do, you are a leader; when you don’t, you are a misleader.

And ‘to mislead’ means ‘to lie or deceive’, which is the polar opposite of authenticity.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas. Subscribe to my Substack HERE.

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  1. Well, @Andre, you got me from the beginning, but you really got me with your last words!

    “When you do, you are a leader; when you don’t, you are a misleader.”

    Misleader, YES! And because the word “authentic” has become so prevalent and even trendy, used with everyone and everywhere — which makes me wince sometimes — I’m going to stick with a word that resonates even more for me: integrity. As my dad taught me so long ago: Integrity is how you act when no one’s looking.

    Heck of an article, Andre, one that will stay with me for a long time!