Authenticity is becoming more popular – we want authentic food, authentic vacations, and even authentic soap dishes (made out of real soap, I suppose). Authenticity, when it comes to leadership, is relatively easy to demand, but it’s devilishly difficult to carry out.

An easy definition of authenticity is to be one’s true self. When we are authentic, others perceive us as more real, honest, transparent, and trustworthy. We don’t have hidden agendas and we don’t seem fake. However, we can be our true selves and be ineffective leaders.

To give you an example, let’s say you consider yourself to be an honest person. When your spouse (or a friend you want to keep) asks you “How does this outfit make me look,” do you answer honestly and say “That outfit is like an impressionist painting; far away it looks good, but up close it’s a big mess.” Or do you find another way to let them know their fashion choice isn’t the best, in order to safeguard the relationship?

There is a difference between honesty and brutal honesty – both may be true, but one is destructive and the other is not. That’s the trick with our authenticity as leaders – how can we adapt to others’ needs, be discerning with what we say, how we say it, and to whom we say it, and still be authentic? This is where skilled authenticity comes in – it is possible to be authentic and adapt, but it takes awareness, feedback, and practice. As leaders, we can act on what we value in a way that does not hurt other people or put us at risk of being rigid and inflexible, yet know that there are times when we must stand our ground despite pressure to do otherwise.

As human beings, we are constantly evolving. The authentic you from five years ago is not the same person as today. A behavior that might have been authentic to you five years ago would come across as insincere or awkward today (try wearing the same outfit you did in high school and see how comfortable it feels). Authenticity then, is not a static state; it evolves. Better than to think of authenticity as a choice – a choice we make in the moment and over time.

My advice is to shoot for authenticity whenever we can; be honest, be transparent about what you believe, and act on your values. Try to be aware of the situation and the needs of others; make the best choices you can. By practicing the skill of authenticity, you will grow more authentic, and that will make a positive impact on others.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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