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The Value of Authenticity for a Leader

Our culture is screaming something to leaders—but are we listening? Last week, a number of similar stories broke in the news:

  • Beyonce sang at the Presidential inauguration…or was it lip-synced?
  • Lance Armstrong confessed he took performance enhancing drugs to win.
  • Manti Te’o acknowledged his girlfriend was a hoax…but he didn’t know it.


By de:Benutzer:Hase (Self-photographed) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you see a common thread in these stories? Americans get up in arms when we find out something we thought was real is actually fake. While millions love Beyonce, they wonder now if she was a pretender last Monday. Cyclist Lance Armstrong used drugs to help him win—but he felt he wasn’t really lying since so many other bikers do it too. And Te’o told Katie Couric he knew more than he first admitted. And now, we feel foolish. We’ve been duped, and we don’t like it.

Oh, come on.

For years, haven’t we known that all that stuff we call reality TV isn’t really real? It’s so staged it’s comical. Storage Wars. Real Housewives of New York. Dating in the Dark. Yet, we still watch it because we like to think it’s real. Don’t tell us the truth. We want reality TV. But I’m asking—if it’s staged, can we really call it real?

Authenticity’s Value to Followers

All this hoopla is reminding me of what people really want in the person they are following: authenticity. We’d hoped Beyonce, Lance and Manti were really what we thought they were. Many now feel their emotional investment was betrayed.

Being real creates loyalty to a brand, to a celebrity and most of all, to a leader. In a world of CG, virtual and Photoshop, we want something or someone to be sincere. To be real doesn’t mean we hang out our dirty laundry or share everything we are thinking. Leaders understand what is helpful to disclose and what’s irrelevant. But good leaders provide an increasingly rare commodity in today’s world: they are indeed the real deal. What you see is what you get.

The word “authentic” is taken from the root: “to author.” It means you’re writing your own story, not imitating someone else or posing. You don’t say “Me too,” or speak in clichés or memorize what someone else wrote for you. You are an original. And when you lip sync—you are free to say so. When you perform well, but were able to because of outside help—you admit that. When you work with a team, you give credit where credit is due. You see the big picture—namely, that in the end, people become loyal to a leader who’s about more than image and Twitter followers. This is the value of authenticity.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.


  1. Charlene Fonseca on January 28, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Well said. We do want authenticity, one of the reasons that the life of Jesus and all the leaders of the Old Testament are verified and confirmed again and again by those who follow these leaders and by those who hate them.

    • Tim Elmore on January 29, 2013 at 8:46 am

      Yes – authenticity is both inspiring and attractive.

  2. Joseph Lalonde on January 28, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Good words Tim. Our lack of authenticity and owning our failures has created a huge problem in leadership and the world in general. If other leaders are covering their issues, it makes it harder to step up and admit your own. Not saying it’s right but I see it happening a lot now.

    • Tim Elmore on January 29, 2013 at 8:47 am

      So true, Joe. In every level of leadership, we have to call people to authenticity and model it with our lives. It’s definitely a challenge to be authentic in an environment that doesn’t value it with action, not just words.

  3. Richard Schumacher on January 28, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Excellent! As true authenticity comes from a heart that consistently follows the will of God in our lives, this stands as an important reason why our leaders would do well to build their faith relationships with Him, as opposed to building Klout scores. Thanks for sharing…

    • Tim Elmore on January 29, 2013 at 8:49 am

      Well said. Our external influence should increase as we lead with authenticity but that’s the byproduct of good leadership, not the goal.

  4. Megan on February 4, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    While I completely agree with your premise about authenticity and being honest, I think that it’s important to remember that professional musicians lip sync all the time – in fact on almost every cold inauguration morning people have lip synced, or played along (Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman, the President’s Own Marine Band) to a recording because of climate and other factors. It’s a very common occurrence, and Beyonce admits to it right here in a press conference, right after singing the anthem beautifully.

    She, and all the other musicians who practice this, try to maintain the integrity of the performance and the ceremony by not allowing the other factors to affect the overall product. It’s a very typical practice.

    • Tim Elmore on February 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks for the info, Megan. I think many of us know that lip-syncing is nothing new – and hardly uncommon. What interested me in the Beyonce story was how people made such a big deal of it. Their expectation of authenticity obviously did not include lip syncing.

      • James on February 5, 2013 at 8:19 am

        It sounds to me like what you are saying is that people had unrealistic expectations. This is a problem with the expectations, not the lack of authenticity.

        If my expectation of authenticity was that you could fly, you would not think it a lack of authenticity when it came to light that you could not fly. You never said you could fly, so why would anyone with realistic expectations think that you could, or should be able to fly? Beyonce did not say that she was going to sing that live, and never backed down from the fact that she didn’t. She was authentic throughout because she was honest and open about it. It is common place for people to perform to prerecorded tracks in events like this, and the ignorance of the general public when it relates to these kinds of things should not be held against a truly talented performer. It is not a lack of authenticity when a person does not live up to unrealistic expectations that are created by someone other than themselves.

        Your premise here is a valid one. People yearn for authentic role models and authentic leadership, however, I think that the examples you used are bad ones that do not illustrate your point effectively.

        • Tim Elmore on February 5, 2013 at 4:58 pm

          Thanks for sharing your insight, James. Unrealistic expectations are an additional issue in any of these situations. But I still contend that these recent examples remind us that people desire authenticity – and react against even the perception of inauthentic actions. As leaders, being aware of this reality and living authentically will allow us to serve our followers well.

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The Value of Authenticity for a Leader