The idea of authentic leadership presents us with several problems. To some extent it is a problem of definition, as is the case with many concepts, but I don't think that is the most important one. We all have a sense of what ‘authentic leadership’ means, and we probably all know how to differentiate between authentic leaders and leaders whom we do not consider to be authentic. However, as the concept is relatively new and still under construction, I am not surprised that there is still no real consensus among scholars and practitioners regarding the components comprising authentic leadership.
The definition issue can be described as follows: at the heart of the concept we usually find characteristics such as 'self-awareness', 'genuineness' and 'transparency', but the following concepts are either viewed as essential elements of authentic leadership, or they are omitted: internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, mission-driven, and focused on long-term results. These are just a few of the characteristics that we also find in many other descriptions of effective leadership. In relation to the more stable, core characteristics, the debate sometimes focuses on what being genuine entails exactly: whether it means being completely yourself in all circumstances and saying whatever comes into your mind (also referred to as low self-monitoring), or alternatively, taking into account the impact of your words on other people (high self-monitoring). Not surprisingly, some of today's new leaders have revitalized this discussion... Obviously, we would all prefer authentic leadership to inauthentic leadership, but more importantly, and because authentic leadership is associated with better team performance and company results, we want to exclude what we consider to be negative aspects of authenticity, such as rude or unscrupulous behaviour. Hence this discussion. I'm sure that in the years to come these definitions will become even more sophisticated, backed up by empirical research, and so I don't see this as the greatest problem with regard to authentic leadership.
Another problem concerns the paradoxical nature of authenticity. As authentic leadership is associated with behaviour traits that one might not exhibit naturally (such as sharing one’s emotions and showing vulnerability), becoming a more authentic leader could begin with acting, something that is commonly viewed as the very opposite of authenticity. In addition, there is the consideration that increasing one's self-awareness usually starts with being open to feedback. However, feedback provides you with information about how you are perceived by others, information that might be at odds with who or what you feel you really are. Furthermore, when being ‘genuine’ with respect to becoming an authentic leader means, essentially and above all, being perceived as genuine, then what is the message here? This paradox can lead to real issues regarding leadership development, but I don't think it is necessarily a huge problem. Most leadership development experts know how to deal with this paradox, since it all comes down to determining the red lines you don't want to cross (whether they concern the acting aspect or the being-your-true-self one), and to striking the right balance. It also helps when we accept that even if we might think we really know our true selves, it is probably an illusion.
So then, what might prove to be the real problem regarding authentic leadership? First of all, we never know for sure if someone is authentic. That goes for the people around us (it sometimes even applies to our close friends), and it is definitely true for our leaders, whom we do not usually get to know well. Despite the fact that there is a whole industry built around finding our true selves, the work that is done in these areas can only lead to a feeling of being our true selves. However, this does not always fully correspond to other people's perceptions of us. In other words, authenticity is an attribution, not a trait. Attributing authenticity to another person sometimes tells you more about yourself than it does about the other person. Just try the following test: when you perceive someone as not authentic, there is usually something about that person that does not resonate with you. Whatever that is, it always relates to something that is important to you. You will also find that not everyone agrees with your observations and interpretations of that person's behaviour and their presumed authenticity. When it comes to leadership, attribution is in fact what counts, and this is a phenomenon that we're not always happy with. For instance, leaders whom we perceive as strong, resilient and visionary may in fact turn out to be insecure, selfish and manipulative. However, their influence will be related to how we perceive them at that moment in time.
Secondly, most people agree that authentic leadership is about being a leader others can relate to. A leader who can be trusted. Even so, no handbook exists to tell you what it takes to be trusted by everyone that matters. Being trusted is also a highly contextual concept: trusted to do what, and how? It is also highly dependent on the other party: being trusted by person A does not automatically result in being trusted by person B. In addition, being ‘transparent’ can mean something completely different for someone close to you than it does for the colleague you occasionally have lunch with. Thus, the question 'How does one become an authentic leader?' will inevitably produce a wide range of suggestions and advice that are either vague or simply too obvious (i.e. "develop a strong connection between your values and your behaviour"). Other advice does not seem to have anything to do with authenticity; instead it merely addresses aspects of 'effective leadership' that have already been identified by many other models. Some examples include: 'celebrate diversity', 'balance short-term corporate pressures with long-term objectives' or 'admit your mistakes so as to set an example to others'.
The abovementioned advice will not help any leader who scores low on authenticity. The only thing that can help us to start solving issues related to being perceived as inauthentic is to find out what damaged the trust between this leader and others, or what makes it difficult for people to relate to this person? The answer will probably not be found in handbooks devised to help you become more authentic, but in literally relating to different stakeholders in ways that are appropriate to the relationship, and discovering the whys and the wherefores. The answer can never be known beforehand.
Authenticity is relational just as leadership is relational. If we were living alone on an island, authenticity would not mean a thing. And yes, we would rather our leaders were human and honest, and that they cared about broader issues and people's interests beyond the quarterly results. Nevertheless, and depending on our relationship with them, we expect completely different things from them that probably matter more to us than being authentic does. Thus, the main problem with authenticity might not be that it is difficult to define or paradoxical by nature, but that it is a relational concept, which means there is no recipe to help you achieve it. So instead of trying to find out what you need to do to become more authentic, you should instead try to find out what the relation needs in order to make it more effective.