Last week in a post called “Powerful Leadership” I mentioned two qualities that Susan Adams believes she sees in Barack Obama that help make him a powerful leader. He is, she suggests, a good listener and willing to compromise.

In response two people, one in the comments section on this blog and another in a private email, suggested they would add to these two characteristics the quality of authenticity as an essential ingredient in powerful leadership.

It is a lovely idea that our leaders should be authentic human beings. But I wonder what we imagine we mean when we speak of authenticity as a quality we would hope to see in our leaders.

What might authentic leadership look like?

An authentic leader is willing to admit that he struggles. Leadership that is characterized by authenticity will practice transparency. The authentic leader has nothing to hide and because he is not attempting to create an impression he knows to be false.

Leadership today is enormously challenging. We live in an incredibly complex world. It is seldom immediately or easily evident what is the best way forward in any situation. The world is changing so rapidly it is impossible to rely on the comfortable familiar patterns of the past for answers in the present.

Any leader who tries to give the impression that she finds leadership easy and that she always knows exactly what is the right thing to do is being dishonest. Dishonest leadership is not authentic leadership. The dishonest leader is unwilling to admit she has doubts. The dishonest leader is afraid of ever appearing confused, or giving the impression that she may not always have all the right answers at the tip of her fingers.

The authentic leader refuses to bluff his way through. He will never resort to arrogance, or aggression in an attempt to create the impression he has things under control. He is not afraid to acknowledge that he stumbles from time to time. He is able to apologize when he goes astray and seeks guidance, direction, and support whenever necessary, which is most of the time.

But the idea of authenticity has roots deeper than the ideas of honesty, transparency, and openness.

Etymologically, “authentic” derives from the Greek word “authentikos” meaning “original, genuine, principal.” The root of “authentikos” is “authentes which carries the idea of “one who is acting on one’s own authority,” from “autos” meaning “self” and “hentes” which means “doer or being.” To be “authentic” is to be a doer who does what he does from within himself.

An authentic person is one who carries within herself the authority for her words, actions, and choices. She does not need the trappings of office in order to demonstrate her authority. She is not dependent upon titles, degrees, or the acclaim of others in order to be seen as a person who lives an integral life.

Authenticity attaches itself naturally to a person who is free from the pressures, forces, and expectations of external demands. The person who is living from deep within, rather than being driven by outside influences, has an independence that imbues his actions with compelling force.

To be authentic means being in tune with one’s deepest sense of who one is and living in tune with the realities of life as they are.

From a Christian perspective, authenticity resides in the experience that our true life is deeply rooted in God. As the writer of Colossians says,

your life is hidden with Christ in God.(Colossians 3:3)

Authenticity is a natural by-product of knowing that my true life does not ultimately reside in anything tangible or measurable. It is not that I devalue the physical realities of the world. But I always know that my true life ultimately resides elsewhere. Therefore, I have nothing to prove. I do not need to earn my way, or demonstrate my worth.

A truly authentic person has no fear of failure. There is no scale for failure in the authentic person’s consciousness. Knowing that his true life cannot be found in any measurable quality or achievement, neither failure nor success are relevant categories.

The authentic leader can afford to be open and responsive to life and people as they are because the authentic leader is not threatened by differences or disheartened by disagreements. Authentic leadership enables people to be free to find their way. It is respectful of the journey each person is taking and understands that no two journeys are ever exactly the same.

Authentic leadership may not always look like the popular image of strong leadership. But, in the long term, authentic leadership will be a powerful and transformative force at work in the human community.