Servant Leadership Workplace-Authentic

An Authentic Jerk is Still a Jerk

Have you heard someone proclaim the virtue of “authenticity” in a discussion of leadership?

I hear it all the time.

And the more I do, the more I am coming to believe that authenticity is overrated as a leadership trait.

By no means am I saying authenticity is unimportant. It’s very important.


For one thing, because human beings are hard-wired to react to phoniness.

The “ancient” part of our brains – the flight-or-flight part – kicks into gear when it suspects that someone may have an intention to harm us. When people are not genuine, we do not trust their intentions completely. So, we go to high alert when we deal with phonies, sometimes just subconsciously. We give extra attention to what they communicate in order to determine a responsive course of action.

In such contexts, our brains spend valuable energy to determine the level of someone’s authenticity.

Which is draining and stressful.

By contrast, being around people we trust is far less draining and stressful. We tend to be more positively focused, creative and collaborative when we are in an environment where authenticity and trust are both good.

That’s why I believe authenticity is important.

But I still believe that, in much leadership discussion today, authenticity is overrated.

Here are 3 reasons why:

  1. An authentic jerk is still a jerk. I had a supervisor who once told me, “I don’t care that people think I’m a jerk. What you see is what you get with me.” Authentic? Yes. Better than being a phony? Probably. A good way to lead? No. We don’t want jerks claiming they are great leaders because they are authentic.
  2. We have many authentic “selves.” These selves may show up at different times and in different circumstances. So, being authentic is not as simple as many leadership experts assert. In my view, self-awareness is a better focus for a leader – especially a servant-leader – than authenticity.
  3. I want to be better, not merely authentic. If I’m self-aware – and honest – I could make a list of my behaviors that, while authentically motivated, are far below the standard of a good servant-leader. (To keep this post short, I’ll spare you the list.) I want to go beyond authenticity. I want to improve as many of my selves as I can.*

How about you? Do you believe that authenticity is overrated as a leadership trait? What are we missing here?


As always, we appreciate your views.


*For more on authenticity and self improvement,” you might like this post: “Are Servant-Leaders Born or Made?