Is Authentic Leadership Dead?

The stakes have never been higher.  Leaders are burning out in 18 months. This is hardly enough time to learn the new role, much less decide on what to do next. Such a rapid turnover can mean a bad fit with the culture, or a lack of skills in managing expectations, or a little of both. Were you honest with yourself about the company’s values? Do you know what you need to thrive? Were you trying to get away from a job vs going toward something you knew would advance your goals? Did you have a strategy to manage your role and the expectations?

This level of burnout is why I wanted to talk about authentic leadership. As an executive coach, I have worked with too many leaders caught in the crushing intersection of pressure and chaos. I want you to avoid this conundrum of confusion!

What does it really mean to be an authentic leader in the workplace? Let’s dispel some of the myths.

What is authentic leadership?

In a Gallup interview, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and author of the book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, explains: 

“Being an authentic leader means being true to who you are and what you believe in. You understand the purpose of your leadership, and you practice your values consistently.”

At its core, authentic leadership means showing up at your best and practicing your values every single day.  In order to be consistent, one of the hallmarks of being authentic, is you have to be able to live your values. This means you know what they are and you make a conscious decision to exercise them every day. When you lead from an authentic place, you operate from your strengths, and you use those strengths to empower others.

Authenticity is grounded in another characteristic of successful leaders, self-awareness. When self-aware, you turn on this internal GPS that keeps you aligned with what is important to you and what impact you are having on those around you. Your GPS, fueled by your values, keeps you on track, day after day.  

Why does authentic leadership matter? 

Let’s face it, being in a leadership role includes living in a fishbowl, faced with a roller coaster of pressure, innumerable temptations, obstacles, and a range of opportunities—both good and bad—on a regular basis. You have to learn to make good decisions at the worst times.

How do you know which opportunities to pursue and which ones to let go? We are hardwired to react when pressure goes unchecked. The higher functions of our brain literally turn off, leaving us with the lower half of our brain to function. The reactive nature of our primitive brain does not cause you to show up at your best, instead decisions are made to fight or flee. There is no flex when under pressure and too often what matters most is pushed aside. 

To activate this GPS, you need to spend time developing self-awareness, so when—not if—the challenges come, you know what course to take that will provide the optimal outcome for all concerned.  

If you’ve taken any of my webinars, you know that I talk extensively about resilience – this is what fuels your ability to be an authentic leader. Resilience is your capacity and when it is full; it’s what keeps you consistent and on track.  This opens the door to your authenticity.

You cannot show up at your best when you are compromised by stress and overwhelm.  

What Gets in the Way of Being Authentic?

One of the myths about leadership is one has to learn to blend, to “fit in,” not make waves, adapt to the culture. The truth is, great leaders stand out, in fact, all notable leaders throughout history had one thing in common: they were polarizing. For better or worse, they took a stand for something and stuck to their guns.

Let’s face it:  If you want to please everyone, you please no one, including you. No one trusts and respects someone who is “milk toast in the middle.” Being all in with your own quirks and passion is the first step to being authentic. This doesn’t mean you are quirky, just for sake of being different. This means you understand what your unique value is, and you set out to make a difference in your role by exercising these strengths.

One of my favorite examples of authenticity is Gary Vaynerchuk. When you read his story and listen to him on one of his videos, you’ll see someone who is 100% into his mission and 100% true to his nature. 

Do you want to know the secret to what attracts people—when you go all in. And this authenticity, when you engage people to join you in your mission, makes all the difference in your impact. 

So take a deep breath and stop trying to “be” a certain style of leader or to mimic someone else. This drains the number one resource we all have, that cannot be replaced, our time and energy. At the end of the day, when you are not authentic you cannot engage people. Not only that, but your confidence takes a hit, and you’ll find yourself questioning every move you make. 

Is it Harder to be Authentic As a Woman? 

As a woman, we face the unique challenge known as the “double-bind.” Harvard Business Review explains that, generally speaking, society equates leadership with masculine traits. Since society’s concept of femininity does not align with those masculine leadership traits, women are judged harshly when exercising “leadership.” 

In the words of Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli (authors of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders), women are “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” when it comes to leadership style. 

As a woman and a leader, the key to overcoming this dichotomy is to be authentic, to be you, on purpose! This starts with a little bit of courage to begin the self-discovery needed to uncover your unique value, strengths and perspective.   

Have you been trying to hide certain parts of yourself to fit in? Do this for long and you end up 2 dimensional and cardboard like. Once you understand and accept your passion, values and your unique perspective, you can be confident in your ability to privately process those raw and unfiltered emotions. This becomes a source of your personal power.    

Do your leadership a favor, stop trying to fit in! First become comfortable with yourself as a human being with your unique views, preferences and design, then show up as a leader, true to you, from a position of strength. 

What is remarkable about being authentic, when you give yourself permission to be fully you, you empower others to become the best version of themselves – and this is what makes leaders great. When people see that you are accepting and open to individual differences, they will follow you wholeheartedly. 

What Does it Take to Be Authentic? 

Finding your value structure isn’t easy. It starts with self-discovery and increasing your self-awareness.   

The following are a few questions to get started in your reflection practice; this is especially helpful if you have felt invisible, or have been passed over for the promotion, or do not command the trust you want from your followers. It is time to exercise your courage and ask yourself some hard questions: 

  • Am I being true to what I believe in?
  • Do I show up with passion and a clear vision for those I lead?
  • Am I authentic in my interactions?
  • Do I show up at my best vs being stressed out and overwhelmed? 

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” then it is time to schedule in time to reflect. This does not have to be scary or hard. I find a daily reflection to be a power habit that will serve you well as you grow in your leadership impact.

For the above questions, schedule in 20 minutes and go through each one. Answer the questions objectively and write whatever comes to mind. There is no need to edit what you write. At the end of the allotted time, close your journal and put it away. Come back to it in a few days or a week and review what you wrote, what did you learn? Make a note about that also.

This journaling practice is one of the power tools I highly recommend to leaders.

Here are other questions you can use to journal and reflect: 

  • What energizes you?
  • What drains your energy?
  • If you could change the world, what would you change?
  • Are you engaged in activities that are directly related to accomplishing your goal? 
  • Do your friends encourage you to be a better person? In what way?
  • If not, what keeps you from building a new network?

There are no right or wrong answers, reflection is how adults learn. If you want to develop your authentic leadership brand, consider joining the Leadership Mastermind. 

Trust me, developing yourself as an authentic leader is well worth the effort. Not only will you find yourself fulfilled and energized to start everyday, but you will also be empowered to lead effectively.


With so many people counting on business leaders to lead, authentic leadership is no longer an option — it’s now a necessity. 

Where to next?

Dr. Cynthia Howard

Dr. Cynthia Howard has worked with thousands of leaders, professionals and business owners and recognized the unique challenges leaders have in managing, inspiring, and engaging their teams while maintaining their boundaries, passion and reason they chose to lead.

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