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What Does It Mean to Be An 'Authentic Leader,' Anyway? Here's What You Need to Know. Authenticity may be an overused term, but more than ever, people expect leaders to share something real about themselves. Here's how to make the leap.

By Craig Mullaney Edited by Chelsea Brown

Key Takeaways

  • What it really means to be an authentic leader
  • Three steps to become an authentic leader

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

jacoblund | Getty Images

Authentic? Try genuinely cringey. After his marketing firm laid off some employees last summer, HyperSocial CEO Braden Wallake posted a tearful selfie on LinkedIn. If Wallake aimed to come off as a vulnerable, authentic leader, his gambit backfired, provoking more outrage than positive engagement. As one commenter noted, at least the "crying CEO" still had a job.

Compare that misstep with a moving video message early in the pandemic from Arne Sorenson, the late former president and CEO of Marriott International. A drawn, weary-looking Sorenson, who is suffering from pancreatic cancer and has lost his hair during treatment, should probably be resting at home. Instead, his voice breaking, he speaks candidly of the coming mass layoffs at the hotel chain, offering his people empathy and hope.

We know authenticity when we see it. But what does it really mean, and how can leaders do it well? Here's where things get complicated. At Meta, in presidential politics, and as a corporate consultant, I've worked with hundreds of leading CEOs and public figures. And authenticity meant something different to every one of them. In fact, it's such an overused term that it should come with its own air quotes.

But more than ever, people want leaders to offer a glimpse of their real selves, even if that view is to some extent curated. Why is authenticity so fashionable? Social media, for better or worse, has blurred the line between public and private. Remote work and Zoom meetings only upped the ante, prompting participants to share their personal lives with strangers — right down to that well-stocked bookshelf and not-so-casually placed guitar (guilty?).

All that aside, authenticity is far more than just a gimmick … if you can get it right.

Related: Authentic Leadership: What Is It and Why is it Important?

Authenticity is complicated — and that's OK

For bosses who put in the effort, authenticity can boost trust in them and improve workplace wellbeing. It can also make workers more engaged and productive. One study of more than 700 employees at 85 small firms showed that when business owners are perceived as more authentic leaders, staff engagement and innovation see an uptick. In another analysis of some 200 European workers from a variety of industries, there was a statistically notable positive relationship between authentic leadership and on-the-job performance.

That said, authenticity comes with its own built-in set of pitfalls and paradoxes. Beyond the motivational posters, it's devilishly hard to pull off in practice, and I've seen it done wrong far more often than done right. For leaders, mastering authenticity starts with coming to grips with three key contradictions:

1. Authenticity can be selective and strategic

Let's start with a critical nuance. Authenticity doesn't mean shooting from the hip. In fact, there's often a calculus involved. A leader can be authentic but also thoughtful and selective — choosing which selfie to share with the world, so to speak. For politicians, strategic authenticity is almost a reflex. Ronald Reagan loved jelly beans so much that he made them a fixture in the White House, passing around a jar of his favorite brand at meetings. A calculated choice to help humanize the world's most powerful person? Sure. But that didn't make Reagan's jelly bean obsession any less authentic.

2. Authenticity demands integrity — but in the classical sense

Strategy aside, at its core, authenticity demands integrity. I mean this in the way Socrates did: All of the parts must be consistent with the whole. A leader who strikes one pose with colleagues and a completely contrary one with friends will be hard-pressed to convey authenticity. Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon, who started out unloading trucks for the retail giant, lives and breathes this kind of integrity. In photos and videos, he often wears the same name tag as every Walmart associate, because that's who he truly is.

3. Authenticity requires lowering the drawbridge

You can't follow someone you don't trust, and you can't trust someone you don't know. Ultimately, authenticity demands a certain level of vulnerability — showing a glimpse of the person behind the professional facade. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the retired U.S. Army general who commanded forces in Afghanistan, radiates this quality. I've seen him put privates and Presidents at ease with a candid personal anecdote or self-deprecating joke about his life and career. At a biological level, this act of opening up inspires deep reciprocity and confidence in the listener. Great leaders like McChyrstal enable people to get to know them in an instant so everyone can move on to trust and believability.

Related: How to Become an Authentic Leader

3 steps to authentic leadership, from beginner to expert

Of course, mastering this in practice is easier said than done. For many leaders, opening up doesn't (and probably shouldn't) come naturally. Missteps — sharing too much, or the wrong thing or the right thing at the wrong time — can have real consequences. For leaders grappling with the mechanics of authenticity, here are a few stepping-stones that may help, based on conversations I've had with people who found compelling ways to get real.

1. Find your on-ramp to authenticity:

Every leader who wants to be authentic must start somewhere, by showing a little of themselves. Start by exploring what small, human detail can be your on-ramp to authenticity. This needn't be earth-shattering or especially revelatory … as long as it's you. Sports fan, amateur chef, gearhead, volunteer, reader, podcast listener, DIY enthusiast — all good options.

In her early days as CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra posted micro book reviews on Facebook. The fact that Barra — an engineer at the pinnacle of American corporate life — shared those reviews with the rest of us mere mortals made them wildly popular.

2. Set your own boundary between public and private:

I've advised CEOs who shared intimate details of losing loved ones, while other leaders were reluctant to share pics of the family dog. Ultimately, there's no "right answer" when it comes to how much of yourself to put out there. It depends on your own comfort level and an honest assessment of the risks involved.

But here's the thing: Authenticity will come much more easily if you invest time in thinking about and setting this boundary in advance. For instance, I'm an open book in many respects. My time in the army, hobbies (from gardening to learning guitar), even political opinions — that's all on the table. But there are critical details about my family and friends that I simply won't share. Part of staying grounded is holding back something from the rest of the world.

3. If it's scary, that means you're doing it right:

Reaching the next level of authentic leadership requires courage. At the end of the day, people are inspired by others who demonstrate the courage to take risks. Willingness to put your reputation on the line can speak volumes — helping cut through corporate noise and forge a real connection with an audience.

One leader taking such a risk is Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of yogurt giant Chobani, who champions a politically charged cause: refugees. Through the Tent Partnership for Refugees, Ulukaya encourages other companies to follow Chobani's lead by hiring those newcomers, making the case that they're a dynamic economic engine.

For leaders willing to get real — whatever that means to them — the rewards can outweigh the risks. I've carved out my own version of authenticity and helped guide others in the same direction, with positive results. Just don't expect anyone to shed a tear if you get caught faking it.

Related: The Surprising Secret to Authentic and Powerful Leadership

Craig Mullaney

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

Brunswick Partner, Corporate Affairs Advisor

Craig Mullaney is an entrepreneurial leader and experienced executive advisor & coach. He has built and led teams in senior operations, communications, policy, and business development roles at Brunswick, Meta, two federal agencies, a successful U.S. presidential campaign and in military combat.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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