Leadership’s Need for More Courageous Authenticity

As a leadership development specialist and certified executive coach, I work with leaders who are interested in scaling their leadership. Scaling leadership is defined as building organizational capacity to create outcomes that matter most. The scope of development is typically in three focus areas:

  1. The leader as an individual
  2. The leader’s team(s)
  3. The organization the leader works within.

The interest for this “scaling of leadership” is in results; the results must matter, which is as much about purpose and meaning as it is about hard and fast metrics such as profit and loss.

This type of leadership is actually plentiful in our world today, despite the polarized political landscape. Focusing on the “big stories” is a recipe for missing the ground-swell of initiatives and efforts being conducted all over the world by people making a difference in their communities, families and jobs. It need not take a nation’s or state’s leader, a CEO, CFO or C-any-other-letter-O to scale leadership; it takes an individual with courageous authenticity.

A quick glance at the headlines or a breeze through YouTube’s “trending news stories” will often result in a story about politically playing it safe, purposely polarizing or attempting to reinforce ego than authentic leadership. These are not examples of authenticity, and in today’s landscape of sensationalized stories, we rarely know what is authentic and what’s not.

Being authentic is not always received as agreeable or popular. As a matter of fact, it seems that to simply think differently in today’s world will likely offend more than it will align. At some level we know this to be true, and we therefore listen to our inner critic and play it safe by not sharing our complete voice. We comply to be emotionally and socially safe, and complying, while sometimes the appropriate response, can have significant limitations, may stifle creativity, and will come at the cost of our authenticity.

What can we do? Are we simply to speak up more and voice our thoughts? Are we supposed to not care, or care less?

I’d like to take a cue from Star Trek here. The prime directive of the crew of the Enterprise was to do no harm. They were “prohibited to interfere with the internal and natural development of other cultures and civilizations” while they explored. Yet Captain Kirk broke the prime directive 11 times to date. Leadership is messy. Kirk wasn’t out to break the rules, but he knew that he could not get results without being boldly authentic.

When Kirk broke the prime directive, it was always in an effort to achieve some greater good. It was never for greed or personal gain, never for the gain of his people over another … and in fact, quite the opposite, as he often put himself, his ship and his crew at personal risk.

Should he have complied more often? That’s typically the dividing question between Kirk fans and critics. But without authenticity of leaders, much is at risk.

So for those of us leading here on Earth, what to do?

  1. Surround yourself with good relationships. Don’t surround yourself with people who will necessarily agree with you all the time. Rather, find the people who will 1. Trust you, 2. Validate you and 3. Disagree with you toward a collaborative solution – not an antagonistic fight or dissonance (or even worse, to simply be rooted in their feelings of being offended).
  2. Get in touch with what you really believe and think. Be aware of your internal assumptions and challenge them. We cannot be guaranteed favorable results at all times by being authentic, so we are constantly making “risk and reward “calculations to gauge our behaviors. These calculations often start with our internal assumptions, the beliefs we use to organize our identity. We follow them like inner rules that help define how we see ourselves and our relationships, but they are not always aligned with what we truly think, know and believe.
  3. Just keep practicing your authenticity. It’s like a muscle and for many of us, it is atrophied. As you gain more clarity of what it is you know to be true, practice it with self and others.

It takes courage to be authentic – the type of courage that allows us to take some risks; the type of courage we call upon when there is ambiguity and uncertainty. I write about being more authentic because I have been playing it safe for most of my life. Playing it safe, in part, is authentically me. I value relationships and most of all, doing no harm. However, when my values, my voice or my needs are self-sacrificed, I am not doing well. And like you, I want to do well. I want to scale my own leadership so I can continue to help others scale theirs.


This Viewpoint originally appeared in the Central New York Business Journal on June 7, 2021.

Bill Berthel is a partner with Emergent, L.L.C., a provider of executive coaching and leadership training, based in Syracuse. Contact him at Bill@GetEmergent.com