What is an authentic leader?

Image of six yellow sticky notes with the words "Be the voice not the echo."Authenticity is one of those words. There’s a lot of talk about it, it’s become a buzzword in management and leadership, and … what does it actually mean?

Obviously (I hope!) it’s not “letting it all hang out.” TMI (too much information) is still TMI, no matter how “authentic” someone’s experience and feelings may be. It may be completely authentic to reveal personal details to your close friends and certain family members, but … notsomuch in the office. Especially as a manager and leader!

So let’s go through a few aspects of what authentic leadership really is, and how you can cultivate it for yourself. Well-defined and carefully practiced, it’s absolutely part of being a strong, caring, and effective leader.


An authentic leader walks the talk, and doesn’t project a “do what I say, not what I do” vibe.

Their values are enacted, not just claimed. This is something I talk about relative to organizations, and it’s just as relevant to managers and leaders.

Consistency also has to do with a steady sense of who someone is. Every manager has to play multiple roles, and sometimes has to take actions that their teams may not like. But there’s still a felt sense of a solid foundation underlying who they are. This could be demonstrated by how they communicate about their actions – they’re honest, forthright, and neither judgmental nor evasive.


An authentic leader is trustworthy, which is a natural outcome of consistency. Again, because of their leadership role they may be required to take action that their people may not enjoy or like, but their teams understand that there’s no malice or unfairness in those actions. An authentic leader’s employees know they’ll get a clear, fair answer to their questions, even if that answer is, “I can’t tell you right now, but I will as soon as I can.”


Authentic leaders understand what makes them different, what their individual leadership style is and why it’s right for them, rather than trying to follow a model of leadership that doesn’t fit. That means they take the time to explore what works for them and what works for the individual people who report to them.


Clearly, this requires a certain level of self-knowledge. To “walk the talk,” one must know what one’s values really are; to be trustworthy, one must be willing to be vulnerable when necessary; and knowing one’s own individuality is a key aspect of self-knowledge.

But, as one author on leadership pointed out in something I read recently, let’s avoid the “deep dive” into introspection. A leader has to know who they are, but they don’t have to peel every layer of the onion before they can become an authentic leader. There’s a level of TMI that can happen in the quest for authentic leadership; introspection can be great for personal as well as professional development, but the professional aspect is less wide and deep than the personal.

Simply put, I’m a strong advocate for deeper levels of personal introspection, and someone can be an authentic leader without needing to chase every aspect of why they are the way they are.

When you know, you know

We all know when a leader is being authentic. There’s a sense of it, a feel that can’t be – to state the obvious! – faked.

Similarly, we all know when we are being authentic. Inauthenticity doesn’t feel good, and it’s usually rooted in insecurity and uncertainty. 

Accepting the necessary vulnerability of authenticity can be uncomfortable – but I’d suggest that the discomfort of being inauthentic is a lot worse.

It seems counter-intuitive, but authenticity really is a skill, and it’s a skill that new managers need support to develop. Contact me if you’d like to talk about leadership development for your first-line managers, either as individuals or as a cohort.