Are you an authentic leader?

Author Jo Marchant

Published 4.6.2021


I was privileged to be on the first cohort of the MA Leadership at Henley Business School between June 2016 and April 2018. It was an amazing experience having the opportunity to study leadership and implementing my learning in my organisation. The biggest takeaway for me personally though was learning how to lead authentically, in short how to be “me” in my leadership. My cohort got a taste of this when at our dissertation mini-conference, I concluded my dissertation presentation by summarising it with a rap. To say my audience were gobsmacked is putting it mildly simply because it was so unlike the “me” that they had come to know over the past 2 years. Their reaction really got me thinking that they didn’t really know me and that started my commitment to becoming an authentic leader.

If you’re talking authentic leadership, then you’re talking Bill George who first documented this approach to leadership in 2003. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of authentic leadership going on in the sector I work for (education) and the organisations I’m a member of. What I do see are heroic leadership, Goleman’s leadership styles (commanding, visionary, democratic, coaching, affiliative, and pacesetting), and more recently, servant leadership which I find very encouraging. But why don’t we see more authentic leadership? My view on this is because you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable and to allow yourself to be held to account if you set your stall out as an authentic leader. And I haven’t come across many leaders who are willing to do that.

What is authentic leadership?

So, let’s look more closely at George’s authentic leadership model and how Purpose connects with Passion, Values with Behaviour, Relationships with Connectedness, Self-Discipline with Consistency, and Heart with Compassion. But what does it actually mean in practice? “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek is the book that I always recommend when people start talking about purpose. Sinek maintains that employees do the “what”, managers do the “how”, but leaders do the “why”, and that, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” A classic example here is Apple. Apple’s “why” is about challenging the status quo and thinking differently and, as a result, making beautifully designed and easy to use products. This is their purpose, this is their “why” and they apply it to every product they design, whether that’s a computer, a phone or a watch. Their purpose leads to their passion.

My eyes have been opened over the past few years as I’ve noticed how much a person’s personal values influence their leadership values. I’ve also reflected on the number of occasions that my reason for leaving an organisation is because my personal values became incompatible with those of my manager’s values. Take the sales organisation I worked for many years ago where the Managing Director (MD) cultivated a culture whereby staff were expected to lie to customers about order delivery dates. That wasn’t something that I was happy to do so eventually I left that company. The MD valued closing the sale, I valued honesty. The irritating thing was that the majority of customers were happy to accept a longer delivery date just as long as their order actually turned up on the stated date.

Relationships too are about honesty, about being willing to share your experiences and being ready to really listen to other people’s. To give them your time and to build a sense of connectedness with others. As John C Maxwell says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Having the job title that gives you authority and power will only get you so far in terms of motivating your followers to achieve what you need them to do. And then there’s self-discipline, the ability to focus on a goal and the determination to achieve it. If you know your “why”, your purpose, then self-discipline becomes easier.

The final characteristic of an authentic leader is heart as demonstrated by your compassion. In my view, the importance of this should never be underestimated. Some years ago, I had a car accident on the way to work. I wasn’t injured although I was shaken up and my car ended up being written off. As I had an important meeting to get to, I carried on to work although I must have been looking a bit pale when I got there because the person I shared my office with asked what was wrong and made me a cup of tea. Contrast that reaction with that of my manager who had been told that I’d been in a car accident but who didn’t bother to enquire if I was alright. That lack of concern for me as a person cemented my determination to find another organisation to work for, one where people actually cared about me as an individual rather than for what I could do for the organisation. My resignation followed a few months later.

How can you demonstrate that you’re an authentic leader?

So, having realised how important authentic leadership is to me, when I started a new job 2½ years ago, I was determined to put my money where my mouth was. In my first week, I held a meeting with my new team where I had a diagram of George’s model on the flipchart. I explained each of the 5 characteristics and how I intended to demonstrate to my team through my behaviour to prove that I was indeed an authentic leader. I told my team that if they ever thought I wasn’t behaving as an authentic leader, then they had permission to call me out on it.

Now here’s the really interesting thing. In the time since I had that team meeting and now, there have been 2 occasions on which I feel I haven’t been true to my authentic leadership style. Both have been when I’ve overreacted to a situation and members of my team have witnessed my resulting behaviour. I’ve gone back to my office after each incident, reflected on what just happened and why and then thought, “Well, if I’m calling myself an authentic leader, I need to apologise to the member of staff I’ve just balled out and explain what was going on there.” Neither the individual on the receiving end of my behaviour nor any other member of my team who witnessed it have come to me to call me to account, as I told them that they could. But I have felt the need to hold myself to account because I’ve told everyone that I’m an authentic leader and that I will prove it to them through my behaviour.

The last time I did this, the individual in question was quick to say, “It’s OK Jo, I understand why you reacted in the way that you did” to which I replied, “Thank you Colin but you need to let me eat a bit more humble pie here.” I felt the need to do that not because he needed me to but because I needed to in order to be able to close this episode with a clear conscience. When I’d finished, Colin said he didn’t know many leaders who would apologise like that. His remark really got me thinking. Do we as leaders really think that we have the right to behave in such a way that we don’t have to apologise for our actions when we get it wrong? Do most leaders even bother to take the time to reflect on how their actions were wrong and what led to that? Or do we just think we have the job title, the power and authority to ensure that no-one challenges us when we get it wrong and that that’s actually

OK? Really? So, here’s my challenge to you. The next time you act with less integrity, less compassion, less empathy than you would like someone to act towards you, take 5 minutes to ask yourself why you reacted in that way and then be big enough to go and apologise.

Read more about the Henley Executive Certificate in Leadership delivered in Helsinki, Finland, which is part of the Henley MA Leadership.


Jo Marchant

Jo Marchant

Fellow of the Institute of School Business Leadership and Special Schools Lead Practitioner, interested in collaborative working with education practitioners. Member of the American Association of School Business Officials International, the British Educational Leadership Management & Administration Society (BELMAS), and the International Leadership Association. Special interest in research into education business management and leadership on a national and international level.