Authentic Leadership, Yes, But for What Purpose?

May 7, 2013 0 Comments

For a long time I’ve been fascinated with words (written or spoken) that you’d expect to pack a punch, but end up falling short. Perfectly good words that feel meaningless or lifeless for some of us either because they’ve been used too much or used only to mean one thing, when they actually contain multitudes.

Authenticity is one of those words for me. We know it means being real and genuine, but those are lofty ideas, too. What does it mean to be real with ourselves and others in our everyday lives and at work? The same goes for authentic leadership, something we’ve been hearing a lot about these days, particularly with regard to women. What does it mean to lead from an authentic place and why is it so important?

This past week I gave a workshop, “Authentic Leadership in Action” to a group of women at the Harvard School of Public Health. The key idea of course was action, that we’re selling the world short if we don’t do something with our own knowledge and experience, whatever our work may be. This principle is one I think Take the Lead and The Op-Ed Project are both founded on. But I also just wanted to make the idea of authentic leadership more concrete.

4foldAs I am interested in movement building and systemic change, I offered a framework I’ve begun using for understanding how authenticity works at different levels. Adapted from the Art of Hosting “Four-Fold Practice” model, which helps groups move toward “wise action,” it’s essentially this: We have an opportunity first to be authentic individuals, we can find and create communities of authentic individuals, we can then become an authentic team, organization, or network. There are practices that help us cultivate authenticity at each level. While authenticity looks like something different at each level, authentic leadership requires the same things of people at all levels:

  • using our voices, speaking with honesty
  • asking questions, taking risks, working with uncertainty
  • a willingness to “fully participate” and lead, whatever this means for us as individuals (or at least to move in this direction)


Participants in the workshop said authenticity also has to do with trusting our intuition, “not becoming a cliché of ourselves,” and not just knowing our principles, but acting on them.

It sounds so simple, right? Just bring more of who we are to the table more often. But being consistently authentic and asking this of others (and not just for its own sake, but in service of something larger) is really tricky because the more authenticity you have in a group, the more difference you have, too. This means greater complexity, and complexity is usually where we check out, grow silent, or go our separate ways. And of course this has nothing to do with how much we care about whatever issue that has our attention. We’ve seen this time and time again in the women’s movement: complexity followed by division. We get stuck.

The good news is there are more and more tools out there now to help us work with complexity, communicate, and collaborate more effectively. But tools don’t do much if as women (as people!) we don’t also speak from a place of truth. And again, not just for its own sake, but in a way that is useful to others. Read more about how authenticity is relational in Harvard Business Review.

How do we get more real? My favorite tool for self-reflection (in service of something larger) is the U Journaling Practice developed by Otto Scharmer of the Presencing Institute and MIT. And there are a ton of simpler ways we can access our more authentic selves every day too, even if that self is constantly changing. Sometimes all it takes is meditating, exercise or dance, a good conversation with a trusted mentor or friend—truly, anything that helps us be present. When we are present with ourselves, it’s so much easier to show up the way we’d like to show up in the world.

What do you think authentic leadership has to do with Take the Lead’s movement for parity by 2025? What does it mean to you? What are some good examples of authentic leadership that you’ve seen?


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