Golf clubs. Diamonds. Ink pens. Watches. Sunglasses. Clothes. We are familiar with quality products that genuinely produce what they advertise. They are authentic, reliable, and have track records and performance to match their advertising. They are the real McCoy — the genuine article.

Then, there are the knock-offs — imitations that pretend to be the same. They purport to be ‘just like’ those authentic products. They have the general appearance of being the genuine thing, but they aren’t. Many are a copy of a replica of an imitation of a facsimile of a reproduction. They are not the real McCoy.

We frequently feel manipulated when we buy these products because they often do not measure up to the qualities the genuine article delivers. They may have the general appearance of the real thing, but they lack authenticity, many times in small, but significant, ways. And then, we become disenchanted and feel cheated.

It’s the same with leadership. Are you the real McCoy? Or, are you a knock-off? Paul Wieand found out the hard way. He was the youngest-ever CEO in the banking business, serving as president. He was a high achiever — a rising star. Then the wheels fell off. His world crumbled because he was not an authentic leader. Wieand now helps other leaders with being authentic in their roles. Here is what he learned.

 Reasons for Inauthenticity:  High achievers can be seen as phony, weak, or untrustworthy for several reasons:

  • Leaders resist soul-searching: Leadership comes from the inside out, and many of us have a hard time defining who we are and what we stand for. Research is clear that by our mid-30’s our identities solidify, making change difficult. Our attachments are established – those things we do not want to give up. Ghandi professed that leaders must know their attachments in life because they will drive decisions and leader behavior in subtle and blatant ways. The issue is do we know our professional and personal attachments? Leaders need to identify their values and principles to succeed in today’s complex, unpredictable and political environment and to behave with integrity.
  • Strengths become liabilities: Leaders frequently see all problems through the eyes of their strengths. But not all problems can be solved through a person’s strong suit. We work around our weaknesses and push our strengths. If our strength is managing, we manage harder. If it is finances, we see problems through a fiscal lens. If we are known for our compassion, we become more compassionate. Sometimes, if we don’t achieve the desired results, applying our strengths harder does not solve the problem.
  • Defining ourselves by our work: For some of us, we are our role – our job. It defines who we are. Are you defined by your job title? This can be a problem. Getting the job done at all costs becomes expedient because our identity is intertwined with the role. Hence we do what is necessary, so we do not look bad or fail, and that can, at times, compromise our principles and ethics. If we lose sight of ourselves and of people in pursuing job success, we can fall out of balance. Our decisions suffer. Our relationships suffer. And, inevitably we suffer.


Authenticity in Leadership:  Authenticity is the key to leadership. It is not about playing a role. It is about sculpting a clear identity of who we are. Leaders need a deep knowledge of themselves – knowing who they are, what they value, what their attachments are, and what they stand for. Without ‘know thyself’ understanding, people play roles; they act like they think leaders should act and do not behave in genuinely – in ways that are in harmony with their personality and principles.

Authentic leaders lead with empathy based upon their values. They do not manipulate. They are not fearful of betraying who they are as people and exposing their human-ness. Their real personality lives as they do their work. Wieand suggests several principles of authentic leadership.

  • Surround yourself with people as talented as you are: Authentic leaders accept their limitations and hire people with strengths they lack. And, they allow these talented people to speak candidly — even candor that is hard to listen to – so they can see their blind spots.  Talented people help talented leaders grow.
  • Communicate with emotion as well as logic: Research shows that our basic emotions and impulses are more powerful than intellectual or cognitive experiences. Emotional memories, as we are more aware now than ever, are intensely powerful. Emotional connections bond people together. Showing ourselves as human, complete with foibles and vulnerabilities, creates more openness and more understanding of who we are as people. Presidents who connect emotionally with citizens are able to communicate more deeply than those who rest strictly on their intellect.
  • Private conversations must mirror public conversations: We all know people who say one thing in private and another in public. Or they say one thing to one group and something else to another. Some leaders do the same. When they do, integrity and credibility are on the line. Being disingenuous or ingratiating, when colleagues know how we really feel, makes us out to be manipulative liars, and thus insincere and untrustworthy. Don’t vary your message according to audience. It can cost you your job.

 Being an authentic leader takes strength and courage. Sharing yourself with others genuinely may be the biggest risk leaders take, and the one most worth taking.

 Taken, in part, from “A Leader’s Journey”, by Pamela Kruger, in Fast Company.