Are you strange, or authentic? Why leaders need to be real.

Current leadership literature is rife with ink spilled on authenticity. This authenticity concept always brings certain questions to mind: First, do we really know who we are? Second, if we really knew ourselves, then why would we want to be anybody else? Third, have we slipped so far that we really have to remind leaders to be themselves?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

—Oscar Wilde

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Without authenticity, a leader is simply not effective. Our culture is increasingly cynical regarding organizations, institutions and bureaucracies, and we seek leaders who are genuine and secure, who can guide us through the complexity of these entities. Authentic leaders understand organizational constraints and the network of people who impact performance. Authentic leaders are attentive to honest feedback and to the details of organizations, like the signals of mood and morale. Detection of organizational trends allows adaptation as quickly as possible. Authentic leaders simply build trust.

Today we tend to emphasize analytical thinking which, in turn, impacts self-expression; but as leaders, we must fully understand our strengths and be comfortable with our weaknesses. If analytical thinking is a strength, we need to use it! If not, embrace that truth and partner with someone who possesses the gifts we lack. This is so easy to jot down in a blog post, but it demands real courage to achieve. We need to be who we are. Ponder for a minute The Doors’ lyrics in the song “People Are Strange.” Are we willing to risk people thinking we are strange? Will those we lead think less of us when they see who we really are?

This doesn’t mean proclaiming a lengthy list of our faults, although strategically revealing a weakness or two is indeed an excellent way to establish credibility. Acknowledging weakness illustrates to our followers that we care more about the mission than our reputation. It shows we are greater good leaders, not personal power faux-leaders.

TRUST: Anxiety and a breach in trust 

Thieves and rogues have been part of every generation of capitalism in the United States—it’s really nothing new. We see this in corporate America today in executives who make the news with stories of ethics violations and wrongdoing. Lack of ethics and a breach in trust leads to malaise and anxiety, which spread like wildfire when they ignite. A true leadership ecosystem is fueled by trust. Ultimately, authenticity is a gateway to trust. When a leader is authentic, trust naturally follows.

Leading is not easy. True leadership only begins as leaders look deep into themselves, understand who they really are and answer yes to the question of being authentic. Many people strive to become leaders without developing any true sense of purpose. Some want the wealth, status, and prestige that comes with leadership. The corner office, the big leather seat at the conference table, the stock options, the private jet, the sycophants. These individuals are willing to do anything, put up any front, and present any pretense necessary to make the impression that will win favor and advance their careers. Yet, all the while they are most often wretchedly unhappy and, in turn, they make those around them miserable.

KNOW YOURSELF: Who are you?

Is this leadership? Real leadership is honest, true, deeply insightful and reflective, purposeful and motivated by high ideals. It is thorough in deep self-knowledge, uncompromising in standards and unyielding virtue. We must know ourselves to lead ourselves, and leaders, above all else, must be true to ourselves. That’s very difficult to do unless we know who we are and what we aspire to be.

Leadership style is nurtured out of character. There’s no point in trying to adopt the leadership style of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Patton, or our boss. It would be as ridiculous as dressing in the same clothes with the same hairstyle, facial hair, and cologne (wait—I think we all know people like that). Do we truly understand our own character? If not, leadership will indeed be a challenge.

As leaders, we must spend time understanding who we are, what makes us tick, and what motivates and inspires us. We must know our passions—what makes us cry and what makes us sing. If we try to be anything but true to ourselves, the pressure will kill us.

No One Remembers Your Name? 

If we are simply part of the status quo, a minion, a cookie cutter, cloned leader, our impact suffers and no one will remember our name to any great degree. Yet when we lead from our strengths and engage those around us with full understanding of who we are, it is amazing to see the enduring impact a single leader can have across a vast organizational landscape. In order to know ourselves, we really need to spend time with ourselves and invest in our understanding of self. We need to ask deep questions of ourselves like, “Who am I? Why do I lead? Am I strange? Do I truly care if I am authentic?”

A mentor of mine once shared that people are strange—we are all broken. Broken people come together with sharp edges, and people get cut and we can get hurt. But, when you take a bird’s eye view of all these strange and broken people, you see a beautiful mosaic. We must understand and own our strangeness, our weaknesses, and our strengths.

Leadership is a journey—not a destination. Live the journey. Be authentic, have fun, enjoy the ride, and live the mosaic—because, like it or not, we are all strange.


If you want to know more about how to be authentic, let us know: