Managing Authenticity: The Paradox of Great Leadership

by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

Leadership demands the expression of an authentic self. Try to lead like someone else, and you will fail. Employees will not follow someone who invests little of themself in their leadership behaviors. People want to be led by someone “real.”

But while the expression of an authentic self is necessary for great leadership, the concept of authenticity is often misunderstood, not least by leaders themselves. They often assume that authenticity is an innate quality—that a person is either authentic or not. In fact, authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you. No leader can look into a mirror and say, “I am authentic.” A person cannot be authentic on their own. Authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you and, as such, can to a great extent be controlled by you. If authenticity were purely an innate quality, there would be little you could do to manage it and, therefore, little you could do to make yourself more effective as a leader.

Let us be absolutely clear: Authenticity is not the product of pure manipulation. It accurately reflects aspects of the leader’s inner self, so it can’t be an act. But great leaders seem to know which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when. They are like chameleons, capable of adapting to the demands of the situations they face and the people they lead, yet they do not lose their identities in the process. Authentic leaders remain focused on where they are going but never lose sight of where they came from.

There’s no one right way to establish and manage your authenticity. But there are conscious steps you can take to help others perceive you as an authentic leader. Some of these steps entail building up knowledge about your true self; some involve learning more about others.

Get to know yourself and your origins better by:

Exploring your autobiography. Familiarize yourself with your identity anchors—the people, places, and events that shaped you. Share these discoveries with others who have had similar experiences.

Returning to your roots. Take a holiday with old friends. Spend time away from the normal trappings of the office.

Avoiding comfort zones. Step out of your routines, seek new adventures, and take some risks.

Getting honest feedback. Ask for 360-degree feedback from close colleagues, friends, family, and so on.

Get to know others better by:

Building a rich picture of your environment. Don’t view others as one-dimensional; find out about people’s backgrounds, biographies, families, and obsessions.

Removing barriers between yourself and others. Selectively show a weakness or vulnerability that reveals your approachability to your direct reports, assistants, secretaries, and so on.

Empathizing passionately with your people. Care deeply about the work your people do.

Letting others know what’s unique (and authentic) about them. Give people feedback that acknowledges and validates their origins.

Connect to the organizational context better by:

Getting the distance right. Be wary of creating the wrong first impressions. Use both your sense of self and your understanding of your origins to connect with, or to separate yourself from, others.

Sharpening your social antennae. Seek out foreign assignments and other experiences to help you detect the subtle social clues that may spell the difference between your success and failure in attracting followers.

Honoring deeply held values and social mores. You are unlikely to make connections by riding roughshod over other cultures’ strongly held beliefs.

Developing your resilience. You will inevitably experience setbacks when you expose yourself to new contexts and cultures. Prepare yourself by learning about and understanding your own values.


Rob Goffee is a professor emeritus of organizational behavior at the London Business School.

Gareth Jones was a visiting professor at the IE Business School, in Madrid.

Excerpted from an article in Harvard Business Review, December 2005 (product #R0512E).

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