Why We Fake Authentic Leadership and How to Stop

Original Fake

Authentic leadership may seem like a no-brainer. But is it this simple?

We probably think:

“Of course we want to BE THIS; we want to FOLLOW THIS; we want NOTHING BUT THIS in leadership.

Easy Peasy

From works like Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out, or Bill George’s, True North, we’ve had excellent ways to talk and think about this critical quality of authenticity.

But have you ever wondered what gets in the way of truly authentic leadership?

Do we wake up one morning and say, “I want to be a fraud?”

Heavens no.  It’s much trickier than that.

Leadership Looking Glass

The Key is Self-Reflection

If I look deeply into my own life, one of the ways I sacrificed authenticity in the past was in service of a personal dream I had for my career. In my case, it was the dream to be an astronaut.

That goal was so important to me, I would present myself in any way I thought would get me closer to it. I lied about my health on my NASA astronaut application. I didn’t mention the allergy to cats.

How authentic is that?  But peel down another layer and why was I doing this?

Because I was afraid the truth would not be good enough.  I was not good enough.  And so I was covering myself in a protective layer of fake.

On Authenticity and Ego

I am not alone.  Indeed, anytime I sniff out inauthentic behavior (…and don’t we smell it instantly…) I now see the ego behind it – pushing its agenda, covering its fears, trying to be something it’s not.

Anytime we try to be something – we’re not.

It’s only when we get out of our own way that a natural, authentic quality can emerge – what I’ve come to call the Zen leader.  Why Zen?  Because Zen is a way to see around the edges of ego – even cut the root of ego – whereas most leadership development and endeavors only make the ego larger and more firmly in charge.

Only as we relinquish what’s small about our self (i.e., our ego and its fears) does the whole, authentic self emerge.

Practical Steps to Authenticity

One practical way we might see this is what Jim Collins calls Level 5 leadership, where one is ambitious, not for oneself, but for the bigger picture, the whole institution.

Getting out of our own way, we are free to serve the whole picture.

One practical way we might approach this big authenticity is by noticing when we get small and self-serving and pausing to ask, “What am I afraid of?”

Fears do their dirtiest work underground and from a distance.

The awareness that sees our fears is not itself afraid, so as soon as we see our fear, it doesn’t get all of us.  And just maybe we can penetrate it, and let it go.

The moment we let go of something that had been making us small – poof – we get larger, like releasing a genie from a bottle.

As we get larger, our net of leadership concerns naturally gets larger.

What have you sensed about inauthentic vs. authentic leaders? When have you caught yourself getting in your own way, and do you see the same pattern I talk about here?  What has helped you get out of your own way and be truly authentic?


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Ginny Whitelaw

Dr. Ginny Whitelaw, The Zen Leader, is President of Focus Leadership
She helps leaders transform with programs, coaching, FEBI assessment, keynotes
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web | Blog |  skype: ginnywhitelaw | +1 410 923 0285

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5 responses to “Why We Fake Authentic Leadership and How to Stop

  1. I like your reasoning and spiritual focus. Could pick on a few things but no need. This a very refreshing post on a most important subject. Thanks for the learnings… Doug


  2. Inauthentic leaders live by fear of failure. They play not to lose rather than playing to win. They hide behind MBA speak and hope no one will find them out, but as you point out, most people can sniff them out a mile away. True leaders on the other hand crave that little bit of fear over things like ‘will this project succeed,’ and use it to push themselves to work even harder. They continually improve their businesses and seek to improve themselves to improve their businesses: “One practical way we might see this is what Jim Collins calls Level 5 leadership, where one is ambitious, not for oneself, but for the bigger picture, the whole institution.”


  3. I really resonate with your clear descriptions of the pitfalls of Authentic Leadership dogma and the seduction of the ego! What a seductive approach — replicate our values and behaviors by helping others become as authentic as we are! Zen leadership practices, leading with presence rather than authenticity, means we actually make a space for everyone to find their authenticity in the space of an encounter. Leader and follower are no longer constrained by the leader’s ego, the follower’s subservience. Values too often become a veil for coercion and imitation. That’s why I also believe in leadership with spirit!


  4. Appreciate your comments. To your points about authenticity, I agree that our “realness” and honesty opens up similar reactions in other people. I noticed this first on the receiving end when I was with a friend who was so honest, she helped me see/tell a deeper truth about myself. Now when I work with leaders, I find my own honesty helps them open up. One caution I’ve observed about authenticity as a “end” in itself: if we focus too much on a “self” that needs to express itself authentically, we still get stuck on self. I’ve come to regard authenticity as a byproduct of appropriate, spontaneous engagement with the flow of our day.


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