Why Does Authenticity Matter?


It’s a snowy day here in the Northeast, a day best spent inside with Netflix and perhaps a few deep thoughts. So we’ve decided to take some time to look at one the four qualities of leadership we discovered in speaking with directors, CEOs and department heads for Leadership Matters. Since there is a long article in the January issue of the Harvard Business Review on authenticity we thought we’d start there. And if you’re passionate about leadership, but not an HBR reader, subscribe.

In Leadership Matters we weren’t so interested in what the 36 museum and heritage organization leaders had to say on the generalities of leadership itself. Instead, we wanted to know–and here’s the authenticity part–how they draw on their own stories to describe and interpret the leaders they are today. We were also curious how they used stories to relate to others. Herminia Ibarra, HBR’s writer, says that “Authenticity has become a gold standard for leadership.” Then she notes that a simplistic understanding of what authenticity means can leave many leaders feeling like their lives, both personal and professional, are under a microscope. In fact, what we discovered is being authentic isn’t about over-sharing. Knowing intimate details about a leader’s life doesn’t engender trust. Authenticity isn’t about confession or a Dr. Phil moment at every staff meeting. It’s about knowing your own story and understanding it so the truth comes through rather than the details. These biographical moments build a narrative. Leaders who use them, and use them well, are teaching more than they are revealing.

Ibarra writes, “But my research also demonstrates that the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.” In fact, like all the leadership characteristics we discuss in Leadership Matters, authenticity functions as a trope for the organization as well. An organization that knows itself acts with truth; it doesn’t need to ape other organizational styles because it understands its own. Like its leader, whose confidence allows her to fully engage with her staff and board, an authentic organization engages its audience truthfully.

Leadership is learned. Authenticity may be a quality you are not completely comfortable with, but as you go into work on Monday, think about why you are the person you are; think about that narrative. Where are the lessons? What are you comfortable revealing that shifts conversation and moves your team forward?

And as always, share your thoughts.

Joan H. Baldwin



2 Comments on “Why Does Authenticity Matter?”

  1. Ilene Frank says:

    I appreciate noting the difference between being authentic versus intimate. There’s little need for my staff and board to know details about my life, although with a very small staff who have worked together for years we often do. I do believe it is important though that they view me as someone who works in line with my personal and professional values. It creates an environment of trust and respect. I find that critical in the workplace.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Ilene. We agree. Knowing who you are and knowing how that narrative can work for you and your team is very different from randomly sharing or over-sharing biographical details in a staff meeting or around the Kuerig. And, as you point out, connecting a personal narrative to values in a way that’s not heavy handed is a skill many leaders can work toward.
      Joan H. Baldwin

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s