What Makes A Leader Authentic?

Authenticity StampToday’s post is co-authored by Michelle Braden (leader of the Authentic Leadership Summit) and Mike Figliuolo. 

I have asked myself the question, “What makes a leader authentic?” many times over the years.  My natural response would be that you just know in your “gut.”  I realize now that although the “gut” does talk to you, there is a better, more accurate way to measure what is truly authentic.   I have also come to realize how important it is for me to look at myself to check my own authenticity.  I cannot change anyone else; I can only change myself.

For myself, as well as the leaders with whom I work, my goal was to create factors we can look at in our own lives to determine and measure our authenticity.  I truly believe that being authentic is easier for some than others because of how their brains are wired, both from a nature and nurture standpoint.

Looking at the word authentic from a dictionary standpoint is a good starting point.  According to, authentic is something that is “NOT false or copied; genuine; real.”  Authentic is also defined as “Having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence, entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience, reliable; trustworthy.”  We can take this literal definition and break it down in authentic leadership.  An authentic leader is:

Genuine and real.  He or she is not trying to be something or someone they are not.  In a book I read several years ago titled “An Enemy Called Average” the author, Mason, says, “We are all born originals, but most of us die carbon copies.”  In short, an authentic leader is self-aware of who they are and who they are not; they do not try to be something else.  FYI, this does not mean they do not work or areas that need improvement.

Supported by unquestionable evidence of who they are.  You can ask those they lead – their peers, family, community, boards (all the people around them from all aspects) – and the evidence of their behaviors lines up with the values they hold, to create consistency and a foundation of evidence for who they are.

Entitled to acceptance and belief in who they are (based on the facts) by those within their sphere of influence.  People believe in them.  They are consistent, the facts prove it, and their leadership is earned (entitled), unlike other leaders who are not authentic and look to leverage their title and authority.

Reliable, trustworthy and experienced.  An authentic leader is a dependable leader.  The people around them rely upon and trust them.  Their experience shows up in all that they do – from behaviors (emotional intelligence) to their cognitive thinking abilities (ability to do the job).  Authentic Leaders do not have to “fake” it.

For leaders to be authentic, it means setting aside all the trappings of leadership and the preoccupation with “acting like a leader” (note acting means being something you’re not).  Being authentic means simply being yourself.  Unfortunately, our sense of self can get clouded by trying to meet expectations others.  The only way to see through those clouds is to clearly articulate who you are and what you want to be.

Articulating who you are requires introspection.  You need to take time away from “the business” and focus on yourself.  Doing so means you have to ask yourself some tough questions and answer them honestly.  To the point above, that articulation has to come from your gut.  It requires emotional resonance.  Yes, leaders –  you need to get in touch with your feelings.

More importantly, once you’re in touch with those feelings, you need to share them with the members of your team.  You can do so in the form of a clear, concise leadership philosophy.  No buzzwords.  No B.S.  Just share your story, beliefs, and aspirations.  Share your flaws too.  Everyone has flaws.  If you try to hide them, your team will know it and you’ve breached the fundamental premise of authenticity.

Hiding behind an image is difficult to do for you must maintain the facade which requires effort on your part.  It’s much easier to simply embrace your imperfections and let your team know what they are.  In doing so, you’re making yourself vulnerable which serves to build trust between you and your team.  If they know you’re willing to expose your flaws, they’re much more likely to know you’re always shooting straight with them.

I encourage you to take the time to discover, explore, and articulate your personal leadership philosophy.  If you can answer the 16 critical questions in One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership you’ll be well on your way to having an authentic, honest definition of who you are as a leader.  You can use that philosophy to guide your daily behavior and reinforce the actions you should take so you can be the authentic you in every interaction you have.  And if you’d really like to immerse yourself in the study of authenticity, I encourage you to attend The Authentic Leadership Summit.  The event features some of the best and brightest thinkers on the topic.  Aren’t you worth taking a few days out of work and investing in strengthening your leadership skills?  I believe you are…

Michelle Braden and Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

– If you want to take a big step toward being more authentic, grab a copy of my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership do the introspection required to define who you truly are as a person and as a leader.

13 Responses to “What Makes A Leader Authentic?”

  1. Great post. To me it seems like all of the points boil down to knowing who you are and embracing what is uniquely you. I know this is a hard thing to do, but it does make you authentic and it makes people gravitate towards you. The more I meet people, it is the people who are truly original that are memorable. And the funny thing is you do not have to have a “bubbly” personality to be an authentic leader. You can have any personality type, but you have to own it.

    Finally, I want to say that all your points were spot on, but I still think that the gut is still a great judge of character. The gut can make decisions without the distraction of the brain trying to rationalize and make sense of them. This is a good thing when judging character if there are external factors like hierarchies, reputation, history, and others to cloud the situation.

  2. John Bennett says:

    It is really ironic that the previous piece that I read and commented on as well was one on the Penn State fiasco. To most of us, Paterno and the other three would have seemed to be authentic leaders – in spite of the occasional minor skirmishes such as the one between Paterno and Vicky Triponey. It would be really interesting to hear how those around him would respond to these characteristics. I have but haven’t read “One Piece of Paper” yet but I wonder if Paterno and his cronies did? What would have been the sixteen questions?

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for sharing John. Yeah, the Penn State thing is a leadership failure case study waiting to be written. There are probably ten books that could come out on that and only scratch the surface.

      Thanks for buying One Piece of Paper. I look forward to hearing your feedback after you read it and work through it.

  3. Al Watts says:

    This is right-on, Michelle and Mike. You captured the first two dimensions of inTEgro’s Leadership Integrity model: “Identity” and “Authenticity;” briefly, first we need to know who we are, then be who we are. I boil Authenticity down to “trueness” (to the philosophy of leadership you reference,) truth-telling and transparency. Readers can learn more at

    Along these lines, I like this quote by Sydney Harris: “Ninety percent of the world’s woes come from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues. Most of us go all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves – so how can we know anyone else?”

  4. Nell McPhillips says:

    Nice article. Unfortunately authentic leaders are lacking in the federal government. If you are authentic as you describe in your article then you find yourself in a position that is not in leadership. If you are an authentic leader then you are rare or eventually you will be ignored or over looked because of your authenticity. In my 30 years of government service in 3 different agencies I have seen authentic leaders passed over, ignored or moved aside even those who have political savvy. Unfortunately I think what government workers need to be all they can be is authentic leaders. Having been through government leadership programs a balance of leadership is well taught and well explained but it has been my experience that few heed its course being caught up with ego and being the boss. This is unfortunate as I think the wealth of federal employees could greatly benefit from authentic leaders. Authentic leaders existed at the beginning of my career because in my observation at that time most of those leaders have spent time in the military. The military tends to spawn great leaders but since most of the government are civilians looking to move up to boost their egos and take control it is likely that as the wave of the next generation of soldiers comes of age we may see a change in government. At least we can hope.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Thanks for sharing Neil. I’m sorry to hear it’s so frustrating in government (having worked for the man myself a long time ago). All I can hope is guys like you continue fighting the good fight to change the culture over time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Elaine Suess says:

    Thanks for posting this Mike. I have found that some leaders do still have a misguided idea about what it means to be a leader (not showing “weakness” or feelings because of fear). When we can help move leaders to discover self and other awareness, magic happens! (for them and all around them). Thanks for the simple and encompassing questions you pose in your book. Talking about leadership from a standpoint of true and false self sometimes helps to open this up too.

  6. Jim Ross says:

    Great Post. It has been my pleasure to serve many throughout my career, the people who are on the ground gutting it out every day. Genuine and real; I share with my staff that if we run into each other outside the workplace you’ll see the same man standing before you. By embracing that philosophy I have saved a lot of energy over the years, great point. All of the following points you make must be in place, otherwise you cannot claim the first as achieved.

  7. […] perception of you and speak volumes about your leadership character,” writes Art Petty.1. What Makes a Leader Authentic? ThoughtLeaders blog: “For leaders to be authentic, it means setting aside all the trappings […]

  8. Sandy says:

    I enjoyed the commentary on authentic leadership. It has been my experience that authentic leaders also share one other characteristic. They are not concerned with leading, at all. They are independent thinkers with a dual focus on 1. Doing the right thing and 2. Meeting self defined goals (not necessarily in that order).

  9. mBraining says:

    Hey Michelle and Mike, really important post, you’ve gotten to the heart of the issue. To be truly authentic, you have to know what it means to be ‘true at heart’ and you also need to know at a deep gut level when you aren’t being authentic and real. Interestingly this intuitive knowing about the importance of heart and gut is not just about metaphors…

    Over the last decade or so, neuroscience has uncovered that we have compled, adaptive and functional neural networks or ‘brains’ in our heart. And our linguistic expressions reflect our innate understanding of these heart and gut intelligences.

    Informed by the recent Neuroscience findings, we’ve just completed 2.5 years of behavioral modeling research on the core competencies of the heart and gut brains and how they communicate and integrate with the head brain. We’ve written about our findings and the models and techniques in our recently published book ‘mBraining’. See for more info and a free whitepaper on ‘Neuroscience and the Three Brains of Leadership’.

    What our work has uncovered is that to truly be authentic you need to connect at a deep and visceral level with the intelligence of your heart and gut brains. And this backs up a growing body of leadership literature showing how the world’s best companies are guided by leaders who can tap into the intelligence of their head, heart and guts.

    We’ve found a series of simple yet powerful techniques for aligning and communicating with the innate wisdom of the heart and gut and really embodying your deep authentic self. And one of the keys to this is being able to monitor and shift your autonomic nervous system mode.

    If you are at all interested, please take a look at:

    best wishes, Grant

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