The Real Deal

How authentic leadership transforms companies from the top down
Illustrations by Tony Healey
Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to Melanie@MyNewOrleans.com.

If there were a contest for buzzwords of the year, I’d nominate both “self-care” and “authenticity.” In a way the two words go well together, because as the self-help gurus will tell you, if we practice good self-care, we are automatically able to express and present ourselves more authentically.

As it relates to business, the concept of authenticity — specifically authentic leadership — has also been a hot topic for about the past 15 years, so its current buzzworthiness isn’t much of a surprise (especially to etiquette writers and experts), but it is worth exploration.

While the notion of authentic leadership dates back to the philosophers of ancient Greece, it could be said that Harvard Business School senior fellow Bill George is its contemporary revivalist. Since the 2003 release of George’s book, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, leadership experts have debated the idea, which the author of course welcomes, because seeking honest feedback and candid critiques are hallmarks of his interpretation of authentic leadership.

George puts this into practice in a 2016 article published by Harvard Business School in which he writes, “Like all movements — Harvard University Professor Michael Porter’s famous five forces of strategy comes to mind — growing acceptance of an idea often attracts contrarian critiques, which ultimately are healthy in clarifying our understanding.” He then proceeds to hone in on the critical importance of self-awareness in the process of becoming an authentic leader.   

To leaders and their employees already engaging in best business etiquette practices, authentic leadership is either already present or easily implemented. The Emily Post Institute — and so many etiquette training programs that came after it — adheres to a philosophy centered on the principles of consideration, respect and honesty. The latter falls under the category of authenticity. If we are authentic in our communications and actions, conducting ourselves with honesty and integrity, our relationships both at work and in our personal lives will be stronger. When we are inauthentic, people can sense it. Our colleagues and clients may or may not be able to put their finger on why they don’t trust us, but their gut will send out a caution signal, and could lead to a lack of confidence in our work.  

So how do we ensure that the principles of consideration, respect and honesty are translating to authentic leadership? It’s all about intention. In a Forbes interview earlier this year about her book The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self, Karissa Thacker, psychologist, founder and president of the management training and coaching firm Strategic Performance Solutions, said, “The big idea of the book is that we tend to think of authenticity as being true to yourself; in the book, I make the case that in authentic leadership, in particular, we need to be true to our best self, our ideal self … What it really means is that all of us have a sense of what it means to be good. All of us have a sense of who we are at our best, but it’s kind of semi-conscious sometimes.”

Thacker advises people to “get crystal clear about who that ideal self is” and to adapt and update as needed, because as we grow, change and evolve, our ideal self also changes. She echoes George’s call to cultivate self-awareness and his recommendation to “engage in reflection and introspective practices,” (think meditation, prayer and long walks).  

George, Thacker and their like-minded contemporaries are expanding on and debating the concept of authentic leadership much the same as Socrates and his contemporary Athenians did in their day (and in some cases even using the Socratic method — cue rim shot). The discussion is certainly fascinating and worthwhile in bringing these concepts to a new audience, but as is the case with most things, it all boils down to a seemingly simple idea expertly conveyed in the popular and eloquent quote attributed to Socrates, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” Wise leaders understand this well and create a creative, loyal and happy work culture built on transparency, consideration of opposing viewpoints, strong ethics and, of course, authenticity.