Leadership has no ideal profile. That's always good news in our workshops to anyone with preconceived notions that leaders are born with X, Y and Z and the rest of us are destined to follow. We are all equipped with the tools to lead.

This is great news for us, but frustrating for researchers in their pursuit to understand exactly what makes a great leader. Currently, experts have begun to focus on authenticity, or authentic leadership, as something common to a leader's success.

Everyone seems to agree that authenticity is a good thing, but it's less clear that we understand what it really means in terms of leadership. Herminia Ibarra recently pointed out in the Harvard Business Review that authenticity-talk is wildly popular right now but also misunderstood. She said that a narrow understanding of authenticity can hinder personal growth and limit a leader's impact; equating authenticity with being overly personal, vulnerable or transparent begs for trouble. And if staying true to yourself means never stepping outside your comfort zone and learning, leadership skills will not develop.

I think our traditional understanding of the word "authentic" obstructs our understanding of what authentic leadership really is. Here's a case in point: Ashley's boss was authentic--an authentic #%!@#. He was unabashedly opposed to women in leadership roles, an admittedly poor communicator, and dishonest. He was genuine, and true to his values, much to Ashley's dismay. Ashley's boss may have met the dictionary definition of authentic, but from what I could tell, he was not an authentic leader.

So if the definition of authentic is not the answer, what is? The concept of authentic leadership is actually a thing onto itself--developed enough, at least, that it has its own Wikipedia page--and has little to do with the everyday definition of authenticity. One excellent study defines the concept of authentic leadership as:

"A pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate, to foster greater self-awareness, an internalized moral perspective, balanced processing of information, and relational transparency on the part of leaders working with followers, fostering positive self-development."

See, authentic leadership is all about self-awareness, positivity, solid ethics, measured transparency and personal development; far more nuanced than just being "real." And while the above is a fantastic academic definition, my goal in the coming weeks is to unpack it into layman terms with real examples to show why authentic leadership works so well.

Hopefully that clears the air - there is a difference between authenticity and, shall we say, Authenticity. That's the framework I want to establish for the weeks to come. Until next time...keep it real.

Published on: Jul 8, 2015
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