What Does It Mean to Be an Authentic Leader?

Published: Apr 17, 2018
Modified: Jun 01, 2020


Whenever I think about the need for authentic leadership, I can’t help but think of a man I’ll call Scott. As a VP of operations, Scott had delivered strong results in a variety of industries for the authoritarians at the helm. If a company needed someone to make change, Scott’s tell-it-as-it-is style made him a natural fit. Until it didn’t.

I’ll never forget working with the team Scott sent my way to “fix.” He wanted them to be more confident. To take ownership and responsibility. He’d been coming down on them hard and it was having the opposite effect of what he wanted. He was scaring away not only poor performers but his rock stars, and his historically quick turnaround wasn’t happening. This was in 2009.

A new world requires a new approach

Leaders like Scott mastered the tricks-of-the-trade in a very different era—a transactional, predictable workplace that responded well to a more directive approach. But the economic crash of 2008 summoned the need for a different kind of leadership. It sparked a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) work environment that ceased to respond favorably to the command-and-control style, leaving leaders to seek new strategies or suffer the consequences.

In an environment that is rife with change—where you need people to think strategically and contribute exponentially more than ever before—leaders can’t afford to ignore the feelings of team members. To get results, people must want to follow them, not simply have to follow them.

“Want” is anchored in feelings, which means that “authenticity,” in the framework of leadership and influence, lies in the eye of the beholder. You may be true to yourself, but if the people around you don’t experience you as genuine and worthy of trust, reliance, and belief—as authentic—they won’t “want” to follow and you won’t get the results you need.

Becoming an authentic leader

Consider these three strategies to be an authentic leader:

You must demonstrate you care. If a leader is someone people want to follow, then the people you lead and influence must experience that you care. They must experience that you care about them, and it must be clear why you care about the work you do and whatever it is you are asking of them.

Ask yourself, “What’s the impact I want to have outside myself (on my employees, team, organization, or culture)?”—beyond the metrics and numbers. To demonstrate you care, your words and actions must be congruent with what matters to you most, at a heart level, beyond hitting your goals and pleasing your boss. Take the time to get to know the people you lead. Ask rich questions, be fully present, and listen. Share stories to help them understand why their work matters and help them see the difference that they make.

You must put empathy into action. For others to experience you as authentic from their perspective, you must step into their shoes and ask yourself, “What it is they truly need?” What do they need from you to experience you as worthy of trust and as genuine?

How can you prepare to address their needs? Every situation you face will be different because every person you meet has different needs. Whether you’re talking to direct reports, clients, or the C-suite, understanding the very real needs of others, without judgment, and being able to address them are critical to success.

You must always pay attention to impact. If you need others to experience you as authentic, so that they want to follow, not have to follow, you must stay vigilant to the impact you’re having on people. If you’re clear about why you care and the impact you want to have, then you have a powerful guidepost for measuring your actions.

Are your actions congruent with the leader you want to be? Did you have the impact you wanted to have or not? If not, it’s on you to course-correct. Taking full responsibility for the impact your actions have on others is critical to be an authentic leader.

If you already show up in the world as your true self and really do care, it’s not a terribly big leap to become an authentic leader. You just need to shift your focus from numbers to people, recognizing that, by doing so, your numbers will be the byproduct.

A year later, I was astounded by the difference in Scott’s leadership. When he risked shedding his authoritarian strategies for a more human-centered approach, he not only earned employees’ “want” and made a difference in his numbers, but also ignited a culture that was passionately engaged in owning their future.

Authentic leadership is not a “nice to have.” It’s your competitive advantage.

About The Author

An expert on authentic leadership, Kimberly Davis shares her inspirational message of personal power, responsibility, and impact with organizations across the country and teaches leadership programs worldwide; most notably, her program “OnStage Leadership.” She is the author of Brave Leadership: Unleash Your Most Confident, Powerful, and Authentic Self to Get the Results You Need (Greenleaf Book Group, 2018).