It seems in the field of leadership, ‘authenticity’ is the new buzzword. Just Google ‘leadership and authenticity’ to see how many results (15 million) are returned.

Clearly, there’s been a recent stage of leadership development that started out as a desire to, in the Wikipedia definition, legitimise a leader “through honest relationships with followers [who] value their input and [which] are built on an ethical foundation.” The definition adds “authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness”. It begs the question about previous leadership styles of course, that may have left many feeling leadership had been based on anything but honesty, relatedness and openness.

However, in the stampede to promote authenticity, have we devalued its meaning and intent if it has become yet another buzzword? Indeed, some people are starting to question whether its ubiquity has truly led to an oversimplification; see Harvard Business Review article ‘The Authenticity Paradox’. This article examines the nuanced challenges to authenticity leaders face if not aware of the pitfalls.

This is where the concept of ‘brand’ becomes problematic. How often do we hear well-meaning advice, exhorting people to ‘manage their leadership brand’? If we think about it though, a ‘brand’ is about predictability, image, consistency, its worth/usefulness to others, or even as purely, an economic entity (what you’re worth in the marketplace).

Is this really what we want of our business leaders? As the Harvard Business Review article points out, starting out with a defined leadership brand can lead an individual down a number of rabbit holes. Especially when circumstances require behaviours that are counter to our professed image as a leader. Living in a world of complexity, ambiguity and rapid change requires leaders to be adaptable, able to deviate and, at times be unpopular, vulnerable and fallible. Yet, these are often the hallmarks of authenticity and counter to the concept of a brand.

A brand concept might work for entertainers and sportspeople who have marketable talents and whose image will sell products. However, when we’re talking about day-to-day leadership where relationships, authority and power are concerned, humans are messy, unpredictable and deeply flawed.

Really, how many of us in trying to define our brand list qualities such as, ‘I might make mistakes’, ‘I might be unpredictable’, ‘I might have to make unpopular decisions’? Instead, we set high and very worthy standards that are often impossible to attain. When we fall short, we feel like a failure and to others, look like a fraud.

The ability of leaders to be authentic takes effort, focus and the ability to embrace fallibility, and yet it’s worth it. To have a reputation as an authentic leader is holistic and builds a legacy amongst those around them – that being true to oneself can transcend static and confining images that may be defined within a particular brand.

Authenticity is one of the attributes that is explored in the ELEVEN executive leadership development program.

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”
― Brene Brown