Airbrushes, Avatars and Authenticity: Leading Without Misleading

Airbrushed Before and After

If you were to look at many leaders today, you’d think that they were superheroes. Unblemished. Never afraid. Superpowers. Boundless energy. And performing with a perfect record…

But this is not reality. And it is not anywhere near being helpful. In fact, it’s misleading.

I believe that today’s leader must wrestle with who they truly are, and bring that authenticity to their leadership of others.



Have you ever seen how much editing is done to the photos of models before they appear on the cover of a magazine? The contrast between the before and after shots is astonishing. In the hands of a graphic designer just about every imperfection can be fixed.

Got wrinkles? Nothing a little Photoshop airbrushing won’t fix.

Looking a bit pale? No problem, there’s a filter for that.

Teeth slightly off-colour? Not when we’re done editing.

Sadly, many leaders today are airbrushed too. Whether it’s driven by pride, or pressure, or the pursuit of perfection it takes a heavy toll on the individual and on those they lead. The airbrushed leader and those who edit their image are ruthless with every imperfection.

They crop and edit, filter and retouch, copy and paste, mask and delete. Perfection is the elusive standard, but in real life it’s a constant struggle to live up to the standard of the unblemished hero.

For many years I was an A-grade people pleaser. It’s an exhausting life, and in many ways a unfulfilling one too. When you lead that way it isn’t about being yourself, it’s about how people will perceive you. The airbrushed leader gets nervous about taking risks, saying sorry, empowering their team, or resting when all their ducks aren’t in a row.



Monavatar LisaThe rise of “avatars” began long before James Cameron’s epic blockbuster film by that name. In internet and gaming circles, an avatar is a character or icon that represents you. You might be a 12-year old kid in real life, but your avatar can be a 6ft burly assassin called LoneWolf. 18 million users have avatars in the hugely popular online game Second Life where they say, “The only limit is your imagination. Who do you want to be?”. In James Cameron’s movie the lead character is confined to a wheelchair, but not when he lives through his Avatar.

Leadership is not virtual reality. But it’s easy to forget that when people start feeding your ego.

Perhaps my avatar could have the business leadership of Richard Branson, deliver speeches like Barack Obama and have the hair of Donald Trump (ok, maybe not). I hope you hear my point though… it’s a dangerous and hollow game to live through an identity that isn’t really you. I truly want to be inspired by great leaders but without forgetting who I am or becoming detached from the reality of the things I need to work on in my own leadership.



False IdentityWhat a release it is when we live with authenticity. To be the genuine article, or “Fair dinkum” as we say in Australia.

Interestingly I’ve found my friendships richer since I dumped the airbrush. It also turns out that people are only more willing to follow you when you’re not pretending you’re bulletproof because you wear your undies on the outside.

These might just be the most important leadership lessons I’ve learned.

No make up, no make-believe. Just the daily choice to be yourself and the best “you” you can be.

  • In which areas of your leadership have you airbrushed away your imperfections?
  • Are you allowing yourself to hide behind an avatar instead of truly being yourself?
  • How is your leadership today inspiring others to live with authenticity?

Bookmark Airbrushes, Avatars and Authenticity: Leading Without Misleading

Paul Andrew is Founder of The Leadership Coach
He is a Keynote Speaker and Management Consultant based in New York
Email | LinkedIn | Website | Blog | Twitter | +1 212 726 1479

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