Does a Leader Need to Be Authentic?


“An authentic leader acts in harmony with their deepest values, motives, and emotions. Ideally, an authentic leader follows their own high standards and integrity,
thereby gaining the trust of their employees who then follow them.”

This is how it often sounds when one looks up “authenticity and leadership”.

However, let me make a provocative statement:

Authentic leadership is a mistake.

We do not want a leader who is primarily authentic.

We want and need a leader who performs their job professionally.

Even when they don’t feel like it!


Businessman_Targetter Coaching


There are likely few leaders who wake up every morning with the inner drive to criticize their employees all day or to lay off employees, except for sadists and dictators.

But leadership also includes unpleasant tasks, and these unpleasant leadership duties differentiate good leaders from those who merely want the title “leader”, without the responsibilities.

The trend towards “authentic leadership” even allows leaders to:

  • Use it as a justification to behave like an arrogant, self-centered dictator and to respond to criticism of their autocratic leadership style with, “But I am authentic—that’s what I’m supposed to be!”
  • Or, for example, out of a desire for harmony and misunderstood collegiality, avoid making unpleasant or potentially unpopular decisions—thus risking all jobs in the long run!

What Does Authentic Leadership Mean?

Authentic leadership means a leader’s observable actions align with their (externally invisible) inner attitude. Conversely, someone is said to be “inauthentic” if an outsider perceives a discrepancy between their actions/words and inner attitude.

Before I critique the discussion around authentic leadership, I must clarify:


An authentic leader is supposedly able to understand their own purpose, live their own values, build relationships, communicate openly and honestly at all times, and also show their inner attitude and mood.

Sometimes self-discipline, sincerity, and transparency are also included.

I am 100% convinced that a leader must have absolute credibility. They should know and live their inner values and beliefs.

Leaders should never continuously lie to their employees, business partners, or customers! None!

But in all this madness for authenticity in leadership, an essential facet is lost for me:

Leaders have responsibilities to employees, customers, and suppliers. To people, perhaps even animals, and the environment.


Positive Clown_Rittershaus Coaching


Is it good leadership if an authentic leader who sees their employees as mere ‘resources’, burns them out faster than a steam locomotive burns coal?

Or does an authentic leader do a good job if they simply can’t and won’t endure conflicts—and thus avoid showing employees the boundaries and consequences, letting some live at the expense of others or bully them?


Leadership Requires Professionals

Leadership is a job! And there isn’t always room for the leader’s feelings.

That may sound harsh.

If you read my other articles, you might even be surprised.

But it annoys me when “being true to oneself” is portrayed as a higher good than performing professional leadership work.

So, what do I actually mean by that?


Authentic Surgeon or Professional Surgeon?

Imagine you had an accident and needed surgery.

Now imagine dealing with an authentic surgeon who realizes she’s not in the mood to operate today. Do you want this surgeon to say to you:

“Unfortunately, we have to postpone the surgery. I want to be authentic, open, and honest: I’m not in the mood for a scalpel and endoscope today. I want to go sailing,” and then turn around and leave?

You wouldn’t be thrilled.

Because you would expect the surgeon to do their job. Even if they don’t feel like it. And if they consistently don’t feel like it, they should find another job.


Patient_Axel Rittershaus Coaching


And so it is with leadership: Leadership can and should be a calling.

But it is also a job. A profession. Not a hobby we spend time for when we are in the mood for it.


When Authentic Leadership Leads to Egocentrism

In a very entertaining and exciting podcast, Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin discuss what drives companies and people forward in the long term. They also touch on authentic leadership and how the whole discussion about authenticity can (and often does) lead to increased selfishness and egocentrism.

This may be great for the egotist. For everyone else, it’s a disaster.

Here’s the podcast link:
Click here

Another “tip” for authentic leadership I found leads to similar problems:

“What others think of you is none of your business.”

This means: Don’t worry about what others think.

On the one hand, this is true. Those who constantly worry about what others think never get anything done. But many will interpret this tip very differently and say:

“Should I not care what others think of me? Great. Then I can be as mean, unfair, and subjective as I want. I don’t have to think about how my words and actions affect others. As long as I’m authentic.”

Which will encourage tyrants and egomaniacs.

This is not good leadership!


Leaders Should Be Authentic Most of the Time – but Not Always

A Springer Professional article discusses this: (german) Click here for the Article Link 

“Authentic leaders are aware of their own values and attitudes. They can reveal them and exhibit behaviors consistent with their beliefs.”

Sounds good, but especially in critical situations, sometimes one must act contrary to what they would prefer.

Leadership does not mean always doing what you like and what you are convinced of internally.
Leadership means doing what is necessary for the greater good! Even when you would prefer to act differently.

It is said that authenticity arises when feeling, thinking, speaking, and acting originate from the same source.

And one acts authentically,

  • when they allow what they feel to become thoughts,
  • say exactly what they feel and think,
  • and then act in accordance with their words.

Do you really want a boss who tells you that you are an idiot and they would like to fire you because they can’t stand your accent? Or your nose?

Leaders should act and behave as they think and feel internally most of the time.

They shouldn’t constantly pretend to be something or someone they’re not only to fit an image they want others to see.

Because even professional actors can’t play a role 365 days a year!

But there are times, situations, or topics where a leader should keep their own opinion to themselves.


In Crises, We Need Professionals – Not Fans of Authenticity!

If you attend my training or online courses for leaders, you know I absolutely advocate situational leadership and employee-oriented coaching leadership.

I always recommend leaders maintain a close dialogue with their employees. Give them decision-making freedom, cultivate a healthy error culture, and sometimes share their own mistakes and problems.

And that definitely counts as authentic leadership.

But especially in times of crises, authentic leaders immediately reach their limits.

One must admit that most leaders reach their limits in crises because many are already overwhelmed in calm waters.

However, a leader cannot afford to be 100% open and honest in a crisis!

A leader must inspire courage, even when they don’t believe it themselves!

They must act decisively, show decision-making strength, and forge ahead, even if they would rather hide under the covers!

They should seek other opinions, suggestions, and ideas. They should work together with their employees on the unsolvable problems ahead. They can even say that the situation is difficult.

But their professional duty is to act and be convinced even in the darkest times even if they have no idea if the rescue plan will work.

Because if the leader doubts the rescue plan and says so, most employees will immediately lose all hope and give up.


BusinessMeeting_Rittershaus Coaching


Conclusion on Authentic Leadership

Leaders need to act credibly and be at peace with themselves.

However, it is wrong for leaders to always speak and act exactly as they feel.

Leadership is a job for professionals.

Those who always want to be themselves should do something else.