Can You Train Leaders to Be Authentic?

Being an authentic leader means opening yourself up to being vulnerable with your employees and having an honest, ongoing back-and-forth exchange with them.

When I think of “authentic” leadership, I think of a manager or executive who tells employees when they don’t know the answer to a question, and never tries to make a bad situation seem artificially rosy.

My conception of authenticity in leadership is on the right track, according to what I understood from a column in Entrepreneur by Adi Vaxman, but it doesn’t go far enough. Vaxman writes that being an authentic leader means opening yourself up to being vulnerable with your employees and having an honest, ongoing back-and-forth exchange with them.

Vaxman recommends leading by example, sharing your emotions and experiences with your team. So if an employee is struggling with an assignment, an authentic leader might acknowledge the difficulty by sharing a story from their past of how they had a similar struggle.

Authenticity and Layoffs

When sharing news of upcoming layoffs, would the authentic manager be honest when the employee asked if their job were secure? The manager in that case would have to walk a fine line between being authentic and not violating their relationship with executives, who may have asked managers to not answer that question. How do you stay authentic when being authentic could get you into trouble?

I had a friend who was close to her boss. They even sometimes exercised together. One morning after having chatted the night before while exercising, she was given the news by this same boss and his boss that she had been laid off. She was told she had to vacate the premises within just a couple hours. Her boss said, “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” in response to her shock and feelings of betrayal. He said he had no choice because he was told expressly by his own bosses to not give her a heads-up. He feared that if he warned her, he might lose his job, too.

Being authentic in this case may have required having honest conversations with the employee before it got to the point that executives were ready to lay her off. Her boss could have shared the dissatisfaction with her job performance and interpersonal dynamics. My friend had told me that some of the other employees in the office felt hostile toward her presence in the office. She never mentioned getting any insights and guidance about this from her boss. Part of being authentic, then, requires a manager to be sensitive and attuned to both the employee’s job performance and their relationships with others at the company. And then having the courage to speak up to the employee if there is interpersonal dissatisfaction from other managers or executives.

Two-Way Feedback

Authenticity, Vaxman notes, goes both ways when it comes to feedback. It requires the manager to ask for and listen to honest feedback from employees about their own performance. “Authenticity goes both ways, meaning you’ll sometimes receive feedback you don’t want to hear. When that happens, put your ego aside and let go of the ‘I’m the boss, they can’t talk to me that way!!’ mentality as it won’t serve you and will only deter your team from being transparent with you,” she writes.

Growth Opportunities

Providing growth opportunities is another way Vaxman says a manager can become more authentic. She notes that investing in learning and development and skills training is a way to show your team that you mean it when you say you value them: “Don’t skimp on the time spent on learning and development, as this investment will pay off in improved employee retention and satisfaction while creating a culture that values learning and innovation, driving success for the company as a whole.”

That certainly makes sense to me. I know what it’s like to be told you’re valued and then find development opportunities lacking—while seeing that they are available and being given to another employee. Managers should be trained to make sure the development opportunities they dole out are distributed according to merit and proven potential.

Work-Life Balance

A healthy work-life integration is yet another way Vaxman says you can foster authentic relationships. To me, that means managers have to acknowledge to themselves and their employees that their life is more than what happens in the office, over work e-mail, and while texting with colleagues. Employees have a family, outside interests, and personal triumphs and traumas. It’s hard to be authentic when you don’t talk openly with employees about making sure they can take time for themselves on a daily basis, rather than just one or two times a year while on vacation.

Vaxman emphasizes that it’s important to proactively build authentic relationships with employees. It doesn’t happen accidentally. An authentic boss takes the time to get to know their employees—and genuinely cares about them. Is that something you can train? Fortunately, the concrete actions Vaxman cites can, indeed, be trained.

How open do you think your managers are to becoming more authentic? Does your corporate culture lend itself to authenticity? Do you offer specific training on leadership authenticity?