The Need for Authentic Leadership

by  Will Lukang  |  Leadership Development

With the economic turmoil that started a little over two years ago, coupled with the Madoff scheme, it made me wonder why it happened in the first place and how it could have been avoided.   I often wonder how the C level executives and leaders across those enterprises that caused these problems can sleep at night.

Having an accounting background, I cannot understand how the management of the companies who had financial problems did not know that their company was in trouble.   What did they do when it was first brought to their attention?   Didn’t they have the obligation to communicate to their shareholders that there was a problem?  I believe it is every leader’s responsibility to be transparent to their constituents at all times.    It does not take a rocket scientist to know that trouble is looming and that in order to avert a problem corrective action must be put in place to address the issue.

The only conclusion I was able to draw from the whole situation is that the leaders of the troubled companies are not authentic leaders.   Authentic leaders have integrity and lead with compassion for their people.  Like all other leaders they have the vision, insight, influence and followers.  But the difference between a regular and authentic leader is that the authentic leaders care.  They truly care about their constituents.

Sometimes I lament that there is no blueprint for selecting a leader for any position.   If there were a book or blueprint, would it help minimize the extent of the problem? At some point, the economic boom led people to believe that it would continue to be that way.    Greed is what broke the camel’s back.  Things would be better if we had authentic leaders back then to avert such a situation.   The next time you meet a leader in your organization; does it make you wonder what their motives are?  One would certainly hope that the person leading them is an authentic leader, because we need authentic leaders now more than ever.

In your own sphere of influence, whenever you‘re about to promote someone, ask yourself the following questions:

1)      Is the person an authentic leader?

2)      Does he/she have compassion for others?

3)      Will this person bend the truth for his/her own benefit?

4)      Is he/she easily influenced by others?

5)      Is he/she a person of integrity?

The world is changing and competition is all around us.  The need for authentic leaders is more important than ever.  If you’re in position of authority, ask yourself the question: Is doing the right thing your way of doing things?  Are you there to serve or be served?  Hopefully your answers are doing the right thing and to serve your constituents.

Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, is an example of an authentic leader.  A question was once asked him about which one is more important, the shareholders, customers or employees.   He said that the employees come first and if employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right, the outside world uses the company’s product again, and that makes the shareholders happy.  That is the way it works and it’s not a conundrum at all (Kelleher, 1998, 76).    When I meet people who are in positions of authority, I often wonder how many of Herb’s traits they have.

In closing, I’ve met a great leader who wants to raise awareness on authentic leadership.   His name is Mike Henry Sr. and he spearheads a movement to focus on authentic leadership called Lead Change Group.   Visit his site to learn more about authentic leadership.  My hope is that the more we learn about it the better things will be around us.

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About The Author

Articles By will-lukang
A dynamic, multi-faceted Information Technology Leader who demonstrates expertise in translating business needs into technology solutions that meet business objectives while developing strategies to optimize processes that improve efficiency and reduce costs. A certified coach, speaker and training from John Maxwell Team. A co-author of The Character-Based Leader.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Dean  |  23 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Great post. I would only change one thing about it. Instead of saying “They truly care about their constituents.” , I would suggest that they “truly care about their” stakeholders. I believe that better represents the larger worldview that is characteristic of an authentic leader.

Will Lukang  |  26 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Hi Dean,

I agree with you that stakeholder is the proper word to use in this situation.


Will Lukang

Gil Pizano  |  24 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Very good post with down to Earth wisdom for those who wish to have it. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

I agree that the time for “Authentic Leadership” is now (as though it wasn’t before :) ) more than ever. Too many people in leadership positions in business and society are forgeting some of the basics of leadership and that is very dangerous. Especially to the organization those people may be part of. Why? Because with social media, and the means of communication today being so much easier than ever before in history, what a person in a leadership position does or doesn’t do can be shared by others in a matter of moments. If a leader makes a good choice, that person’s supporters can share it with many people quickly if they want to. If a leader makes a poor choice, that person’s enemies will communicate it just as easily. People in leadership positions are more transparent today whether they want to be or not so authentic leadership is truly needed now more than ever!

Will Lukang  |  26 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Social media provides an instantaneous way of connecting with your audience. It enable us connect and engage the people whom we like to establish a relationship.

Guy Farmer  |  25 Apr 2011  |  Reply

Great post Will. I’m reminded of how much power leaders have to practice any leadership style they choose and create any kind of organization they wish. I’ve found it helpful to be a whole person first and help other do the same in order to create happy workplaces.

James Ginther  |  27 Apr 2011  |  Reply

The qualities you describe as great leadership could be seen to directly parallel the qualities of a great coach or teacher as described in The Talent Code; soft spoken, a great communicator, with an intimate knowledge of the steps to be performed, establishing trust by the constancy of their message, which starts with their love for the thing taught and the character of the teacher.

A leader has the additional role of understanding any great endeavor is the leveraged efforts of a team, each member bringing their own skill set and understanding of the direction of the organization.


“The leading of the many is like the leading of the few, it is a matter of planning the divisions.” Sun Tzu

William Seidman  |  14 May 2011  |  Reply

This post really got me thinking about the meaning of authenticity.

While I agree that authenticity is a key element of leadership, I don’t think that it implies either caring or integrity. Take the Wall Street CEOs who almost bankrupted the world. I am sure that they authentically cared about their employees (who made lots of money) and their shareholders (who also made lots of money). While it is clear that Goldman Sachs systematically abused their customers, I would suspect that the GS leadership genuinely felt it was their right to do whatever it took to make a lot of money. The concept of authenticity does not imply anything about the social good, only that someone is genuine. In that sense someone can be authentic even if they are a jerk as long as they are a genuine jerk.

Just to give this more perspective though, a short while ago, I was asked to work with the Japanese team of a multi-national company to create a leadership development program that would be proliferated globally if it worked in Japan. To do this, we assembled 8 positive deviant Japanese leaders and conducted a 3 day workshop that produced a set of best practices on how to be a great leader in their organization and a learning program for becoming a great leader. Authenticity was a critical part of both the best practices and the development program. They felt very strongly that a great leader had to be authentic.

However, we immediately ran into 3 problems:

1. The Japanese have many words for authenticity that do not have American English equivalents. The Japanese have a much more complete and nuanced perspective on authenticity than Americans, and it was reflected in the language and to a degree in the culture.
2. The Japanese had some specific ideas on how you could guide someone to be authentic that were also a little different from US approaches. Specifically, the Japanese recommended that all prospective leaders spend several days meditating in a Budhist Temple. Their view was that self-reflection was the road to authenticity and meditation is great self-reflection.
3. Given the first two issues, it was very unlikely that the program, which was tremendously successful for the Japanese management team, could transfer to the US. Can you imagine US CEOs giving their teams 2-3 days to go meditate (and the reaction of the teams to the request)? It just wasn’t going to happen.

So we ended up creating a separate leadership development program for the US, which was also quite succesful, but it only briefly touched on authenticity. Overtime, we did many such programs in the US and the results were always similar.

The conclusion of all of the work is that authenticity is actually critical for effective leaderhip, but in US corporations, authenticity does not mean there is caring and integrity too. For most organizations, it is just luck if their leadership has even one of these attributes, much less all three.

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