This article comes from my 2024 research agenda which focuses on authentic leadership, communicating with clarity, and understanding how AI impacts the future of human connection. Stay tuned for more on these topics!

Did you know that “Authentic” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2023?

Perhaps not, considering the dominance of one topic: Artificial Intelligence.

The creation of AI tools to help you improve your public speaking and even replicate someone’s voice, with or without their permission, caused people to question authenticity in new and important ways. 

For over two decades, I have guided executives and world leaders in discovering their authentic voices, a process deeply rooted in self-empowerment and self-actualization. 

Authenticity, which I define as acting in alignment with one’s values and beliefs, is more than a leadership trait; it’s a tool for building trust and inspiring action. 

However, being authentic doesn’t solely depend on your internal compass; for better or worse, it also depends on how others perceive your authenticity.

Who decides authenticity? A lesson from marketing 

Take a moment to consider your organization.

Is your company’s brand authentic?

In a recent article, Dr. Marcus Collins sheds light on brand authenticity, which he describes as consistency with a brand’s values. 

You likely have a mission statement or purpose and a defined set of values. You have probably launched initiatives, made hiring decisions, and developed a brand voice in line with your mission and values. If your company is being consistent with its values, it is authentic.

But does that authenticity come through to your clients, buyers, and external stakeholders? 

Collins stated that when it comes to brands, “authenticity is not self-actualized; it is awarded to us through public evaluation.”

In other words, public opinion determines if your brand is authentic, affecting their buying decision, and your company’s success. 

Is the same true of your personal authenticity?

Authenticity can take many forms. You can be authentically detail-oriented, which could be perceived as micromanaging — or authentically thorough in decision-making, which could be perceived as indecisive. You could even be authentically lazy!

Personal authenticity is about bringing your best self to every situation and acting in alignment with your values.

Is authenticity gendered? Experiences of women CEOs

Women often discuss a “double bind” in leadership: when you demonstrate stereotypically female characteristics, you’re viewed as unfit for leadership, but when you demonstrate stereotypically male characteristics, you’re considered inauthentic.

Sarah Niblock, Visiting Professor, York St John University, highlighted in this article about women CEOs: “Even when women leaders are celebrated for their ‘authenticity’, all-too-often the definition of authenticity in that professional context is a gender-specific, institutionally-driven social construct.”

In other words, your audience evaluates your authenticity based on their individual assumptions of what is authentic based on your gender.

This is further exemplified in a 2015 research paper Doing Authenticity: The Gendered Construction of Authentic Leadership in the Wiley journal Gender, Work & Organization that stated: “authenticity is something leaders ‘do’ rather than something they ‘have’ or ‘are’, and that being constructed as authentic depends on the leader performing authenticity in line with gender norms deemed appropriate for the socially constructed context in which they are expected to lead.”

Social and cultural norms, as well as individual experiences, add layers of complexity and nuance to authenticity.

If you want to create space for you and your colleagues to show up as their authentic selves every day, ask yourself what social norms are acting against you. Which can you challenge and change?

How to harness your authenticity as a leadership tool

It’s critical to acknowledge that others play a role in receiving your message, because communication is a two-way street. 

Here are 4 steps to tap into your authenticity and understand how it’s perceived by others:

1. Identify your personal values

What drives you? Why do you do what you do? Knowing your values will help you communicate with language that’s personal and concrete.

2. Look for shared values with your audience

Once you’ve identified your own values, identify what values you share with coworkers or clients. Share a personal story or anecdote when you communicate that talks about those values. This creates deeper connection and also helps others recognize when you act in alignment with your values.

3. Create opportunities for feedback and dialogue

A shocking number of leaders don’t review themselves or provide opportunities for feedback. Constructive criticism can be tough but is critical —it’s better to hear it during a 360 than at your top performer’s exit interview.

4. Foster a safe environment for others

Some people at your company may not feel safe exploring or presenting their authentic selves at work. Reflect on ways you can directly or indirectly influence your environment to help create that space, without forcing others beyond their limits. And ask yourself if your evaluation of their authenticity is based on stereotypical concepts of authenticity vs that person acting in alignment with their values.

Authenticity in leadership is a nuanced concept, intertwined with personal values and external perceptions. It’s a continuous journey of self-discovery, expression, and adjustment to the perceptions of those we lead and interact with. Embracing this complexity allows leaders to harness authenticity as a powerful tool for connection and influence.