Authentic leadership is nonsense!
Authenticity as a concept is very popular. “Be true to yourself “2 is doing the rounds as a slogan. Google currently lists 210 million results for “authentic leadership”. Many articles explain the correspondence between inner experience and outer behaviour, between inner and outer harmony. And of course, great results can be achieved with authentic leadership. Not only from my point of view is this nonsense!
Pudding and unclear causalities
What is authentic leadership? Unfortunately, this question cannot be answered with a catchy definition. Even William Gardner, who with his team at Texas Tech University examined 91 specialist publications on authentic leadership and documented the findings in more than 25 pages, does not manage to do so.3 As is well known, pudding cannot be nailed to the wall. One of the reasons for this can be found in Begley’s definition of authentic leadership:
“Authentic leadership may be thought of as a metaphor for professionally effective, ethically sound, and consciously reflective practices[…]. This is leadership that is knowledge based, values informed, and skillfully executed.”4
Authentic leadership is, in essence, good leadership. Correct? Sigh. This is useless to the max. If ever there was a circular definition full of unclear causalities, this is it. If authentic leadership is all that works, then I need not be surprised that positive effects of authentic leadership can be measured.In fact, I often experience that authentic leadership is not a good idea, but before we look at the scientific findings, I would like to shed light on the sense of inauthentic and the nonsense of authentic behaviour.
The sense of inauthentic and the nonsense of authentic behaviour
Let’s put aside the difficulties of defining authentic leadership for a moment and take a look at inauthentic behaviour. Inauthentic behaviour is indeed highly advisable in many situations. Just like authentic behaviour, it has many positive effects and in the aggregate it results in a zero correlation to success.
Example: Have you ever experienced a TED speaker who was not in a good mood or whose behaviour was not decidedly well suited to the topic at hand? I haven’t. Anyone who frequently gives speeches and lectures, who appears on stages or podiums, knows that it’s all about the presentation of content and topics regardless of the actual, honest emotional state at that specific moment. It is a performance. Does that make many speakers inauthentic? Certainly often, yes. Is that appropriate for the situation? But of course!
In fact, authenticity is a particularly bad idea in many situations, and not just for managers. The whole service sector, for example, is full of a lack of authenticity. We expect service providers to be friendly, regardless of their personal inner life. When I go to my family doctor, I expect interest and care. And even though I have pain that brings me to the doctor in the first place, I strive for a nice, appropriate atmosphere. Is that inauthentic? Sure it is. Maybe it’s dishonest too, but we shouldn’t close our eyes to that because we don’t live in Takatukaland.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we always have to deal with people we find unsympathetic or even stupid. As a manager, in such cases you should ask yourself directly whether you are doing justice to the employees at all, because as we know, we like people better who are similar to us. So if we want to promote diversity, we inevitably have to open up to people we like less, who seem strange to us, with whom we are strangers. The effort to be friendly and open is, of course, inauthentic. But important nonetheless.
Prominent examples from business and politics
When Matthias Mueller took over as CEO at VW in 2015 in the wake of the diesel scandal, he would certainly often have wanted to throw in the towel in exasperation. It must have been insanely difficult to find the fine line between apologising for the misdemeanours and coming to terms with the grievances on the one hand, and conveying hope for the workforce plus future-oriented strategy development on the other. It was a real balancing act that he could not envy. Of course, no one was interested in how Mr. Mueller felt at the time and whether he was acting inauthentically? The situation was not about his well-being or authenticity. With all the headwinds, the numerous challenges and all the personal tension, he had to radiate calm. That was incredibly difficult and inauthentic at the same time. And yet it was the sensible course of action.
If we take a closer look at Angela Merkel as another prominent example, we see several exciting developments at once. First, it is highly unusual for an introvert like Ms Merkel to reach such a high leadership position. Yet the degree of extraversion is actually only slightly linked to leadership success. Only about 5% of the differences in leadership success can be attributed to extraversion5 and this is presumably due to the greater willingness of extroverts to send visionary-charismatic signals.6 At the same time, introverted personalities have some advantages in situations with particularly proactive leaders.7 Irrespective of this, extroverts are promoted significantly more often8 because, on the one hand, they are simply more eye-catching, and introverts fear significantly more unpleasant emotions from a leadership role and therefore tend to refrain from efforts in this direction.9
When striving for a leadership position, inauthentic behaviour thus makes perfect sense for introverts on balance, in that they put aside their actual impulses in favour of a more extroverted appearance. As Angela Merkel has undoubtedly perfected over all these years, although you could always tell she was uncomfortable. Moreover, I am sure that over the years she has had many, many people as guests whom she found distinctly unpleasant, but in whose presence she was nonetheless inauthentically friendly. We all do and we all know it.
Authenticity of what, actually?
In my eyes, even the Merkel rhombus is a fundamentally inauthentic gesture. My interpretation of the gesture is that Ms Merkel simply did not know what to do with her hands in various situations and therefore used the rhombus. A solution that is as inauthentic as it is elegant. But this brings us to the next point: on the subject of authenticity, regardless of the definition and appropriateness of authenticity, the question arises as to what should actually be the reference point?
- People change.
- Values change.
- Life courses require new perspectives.
- Strokes of fate put us in different circumstances.
- Situations are different.
- And we all have various roles.
In fact, the idea that one can train oneself to be authentic with the help of leadership development is a grotesque contradiction in terms. Training behaviour to become authentic. Sigh.
Even life plays tricks on pretended authenticity again and again. The day our daughter was born, a previously unknown structure entered our family’s life. All of a sudden, the daily routine was strongly oriented towards a newly arrived family member. The conscientiousness increased with the structuring.
- What is authentic in this situation?
- Is the change inauthentic because we used to live differently?
- Or is authenticity only interpretable for a brief moment at all? What periods of time are relevant?
- What is actually the baseline of authenticity?10
- To which self does authenticity refer when a person fills different roles in which different behaviours are inevitably habituated?
- Is it inauthentic if someone behaves differently across situations?
Actually, the answer would be that authenticity, as mentioned at the beginning, represents a harmony between inside and outside. However, this does not fit, because with an ideal form of leadership understood in this way, one also brings authentic unsympathetic people on board. The trick to resolving this contradiction leads more or less inevitably to the undignified spectacle surrounding the definition. You have to have the inside and the outside on board, but at the same time get rid of the authentic unsympathetic.11 That is why many theorists of authentic leadership suddenly bring values to the fore. These values fall from the sky, so to speak. And if authenticity is to remain positive, a demarcation must take place. Authentic leadership then becomes “meaning- and value-oriented leadership”. Exactly which meaning- and value-oriented components are being talked about remains vague. But as we know, the reference to “purpose” always works.
The current state of science in authentic leadership
If authentic leadership must almost inevitably unite meaning- and value-oriented elements through the brain acrobatics described above, then it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish it from visionary-charismatic or transformational leadership. After all, the visionary element is nothing more than a desirable image of the future, which ideally appeals to heart, hand and brain at the same time. That is the core of purpose. And charisma is symbolic, emotional and value-based signalling. Does authentic leadership charged with meaning and values then have any added value at all? The answer, unfortunately, is no. And that brings us to the present. The state of authentic leadership today is devastating for a number of reasons:
Until a few years ago, it looked as if authentic leadership approaches could actually add value beyond the angle of a meaning- and value-based approach. Ironically, however, the central articles of authentic leadership did not stand up to deeper scrutiny and had to be withdrawn one by one. After various suspicions, the authors could not or would not provide the original data. The suspicion of data manipulation was in the air. Phew. Tough call. As a result, there were at least seven so-called “retractions”, which is close to the maximum penalty in science.12
As early as 2011, by the way, there had been initial concerns about whether authentic leadership was really a sensible idea.13 This momentum has now reached the breadth of academia. In 2019, another highly regarded article was published that takes a decidedly critical look at authentic leadership under the clear title “Warning for excessive positivity: Authentic leadership and other traps in leadership studies”.14 It is now scientifically clear that authentic leadership has no additional benefit beyond transformational leadership.15 This is the state of knowledge that needs to be put into practice. Which is what I am doing with this, even though I would rather live in Lalaland.
When authenticity is particularly critical
Let’s not misunderstand each other: Authenticity per se is of course not a bad thing. And of course there are also situations in which it is quite appropriate. Most of the time, in fact. But authenticity is not a leadership style and certainly not a successful one. At the same time, however, we have all had positive experiences with following our inner feelings and expressing them outwardly. So at what point or how much authenticity makes sense? A look in the neighbourhood might help: Honesty.
Authenticity is something different from honesty. But the resulting implications are remarkably similar. Is dishonesty advisable and useful? We all fib here and there for a reason. Funny and fitting at this point could be the self-experiment “I Think You’re Fat” by A. J. Jacobs16 , who experimented with radical honesty and in the end – of course – comes to the conclusion that you shouldn’t tell your fellow human beings everything that’s on your mind. It’s a similar thing with authenticity. Adam Grant writes in the New York Times that authenticity without empathy is selfish.17 There are many things that resonate and need to be considered, such as social status, social prejudice, and the need to be honest.
- social status,
- perception of performance and
- speed of promotion.
Let’s start with social status. Authenticity is fundamentally more complicated for non-dominant groups. Grant points out that authenticity is more readily accepted among men in senior leadership positions than among women. This is because men’s competence is usually taken for granted, while women – unfairly – would have to work harder to prove themselves.
Second is the perception of achievement. A study by Celia Moore & Co. measured the degree of authenticity in job interviews and observed which candidates were hired, taking their CVs into account. Authenticity had a positive impact on hiring for the top 10% of applicants, while it had a negative impact on the bottom 25%-50% (depending on the occupational group).18 Clearly, someone who makes a strong impression anyway will appear humble when admitting weaknesses authentically. Someone with a bad CV is more likely to list the reasons for their own failure.
Thirdly, the speed of promotion. Managers who adapt their behaviour to the new circumstances after moving to a new position advance faster and receive implicit knowledge from their superiors more often than average. These so-called “high-self-monitors” or “chameleons” have a fine radar for their environment and can quickly adapt to new requirements and situations. However, they also run the risk of being perceived as inauthentic. But is that true? What actually is authenticity and at what intervals is it measured? The answer is: no, chameleons are not impostors. It is simply their natural way of trying out new things in unknown situations – and thus being authentic. It is precisely new roles and unknown situations that offer us the chance to learn by trying out new things. And it is also natural that trying out something new seems unnatural at first. But only in this way can we grow beyond ourselves. It is up to us whether we open up to new things and learn, or close ourselves off and cling to old habits. Herminia Ibarra sums it up wonderfully under the term Authenticity Paradox: “If we understand ourselves as ‘unfinished’ personalities in constant development, this can help us to be in harmony with ourselves and still be able to react flexibly to the constantly changing needs of our working environment.”19
This may all sound less enthusiastic now than in the glossy brochures of many consultancies and coaches. Authentic leadership was a nice idea, but in 2022 we cannot avoid ticking off the concept from a scientific point of view.
Leaders can gladly take this as positive news, because it is basically a simplification of an already complex job. There are far too many leadership approaches that supposedly work insanely well. However, very few of them are of substance. Not even authentic leadership. Demonstrably good leadership runs on visionary-charismatic elements, along with empathy and responsiveness, a dash of instrumental leadership and a bit of performance orientation. And in that order. Full stop. And the great thing is that this is not only empirically proven, but can be completely learned. Leaders who want to develop meaningfully should do so in these very areas. Leadership is complex, but not as complicated as many make it out to be. And it can be learned!
Notes (Partly in German):
Are you interested in hard evidence on soft topics like leadership, culture and change? Then take a look at Ralf Lanwehr’s German blog. It’s worth it, because there he takes a fact-based look at hyped future topics – and it’s both informative and very entertaining!
 Wikipedia: Authentizität
 Gardner, W. L., Cogliser, C. C., Davis, K. M., & Dickens, M. P. (2011). Authentic leadership: A review of the literature and research agenda. The Leadership Quarterly, 22, 1120-1145.
 Begley, P. T. (2001). In pursuit of authentic school leadership practices. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4, 353–365.
 Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765−780.
 Reichard, R. J., Riggio, R. E., Guerin, D. W., Oliver, P. H., Gottfried, A. W., & Gottfried, A. E. (2011). A longitudinal analysis of relationships between adolescent personality and intelligence with adult leader emergence and transformational leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 22 (3), 471–481.
 Grant, A. M., Gino, F., & Hofmann, D. A. 2011. Reversingthe extraverted leadership advantage: The role of employee proactivity. Academy of Management Journal, 54: 528–550.
 Ensari, N., Riggio, R. E., Christian, J., & Carslaw, G. (2011). Who emergesas a leader? Meta-analyses of individual differences as predictors ofleadership emergence. Personality and Individual Differences, 51,532–536.
 Spark, A., Stansmore, T., & O’Connor, P. (2018). The failure of introverts to emerge as leaders: The role of forecasted affect. Personality and Individual Differences, 121, 84-88.
 This is the question most eloquently posed by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who devotes an entire chapter to the topic of authentic leadership in his glorious book “Leadership BS”. The book is a brilliant reckoning with what Pfeffer, in righteous anger, calls the “leadership industry”. Tip!
 By the way, it is very difficult to hype a concept like authenticity as a great leadership trend when a great many unsympathetic people in world politics turn out to be decidedly authentic.
 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/job.653 und https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/peps.12148 und https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-39521-010
 Ford, Jackie, & Nancy Harding (2011). The Impossibility of the “True Self ” of Authentic Leadership. Leadership, 7 (4), 463–79.
 Alvesson, M. & Einola, K. (2019). Warning for excessive positivity: authentic leadership and other traps in leadership studies. The Leadership Quarterly, 30 (4), 383–395.
 Hoch, J. E., Bommer, W. H., Dulebohn, W. H., & Wu, D. (2018). Do ethical, authentic, and servant leadership explain variance above and beyond transformational leadership? A meta-analysis. Journal of Management, 44, 501–529.
 Jacobs, A. J. (2007, 24. Juli): I Think You’re Fat. https://www.esquire.com/features/honesty0707
 Grant, Adam (2020, 10. April): The Fine Line Between Helpful and Harmful Authenticity. The New York Times Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/smarter-living/the-fine-line-between-helpful-and-harmful-authenticity.html
 Moore, Celia, Lee, Sun Young, Kim, Kawon, Cable, Daniel M. (2017): The advantage of being oneself: The role of applicant self-verification in organizational hiring decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102 (11), S. 1493–1513
 Ibarra, Herminia (2015): Mythos Authentizität. Harvard Business Manager, 2015 (4), S. 20–29
This article is a joint work by Ralf Lanwehr and Stefan Strauss.
Ralf Lanwehr has been a consultant, trainer & coach for over 20 years, has held a professorship in management for 13 years and is Germany’s third most funded business psychologist. In his focus areas of leadership & transformation, he cooperates with companies such as BMW, RWE and SAP at board level. At the same time, he enthusiastically performs in professional football. There he works with management and coaching staffs from the Bundesliga, is responsible for the area of leadership in further education for professional coaches and managers for the DFB and is involved in various transfer projects.