Authenticity has become the latest buzz word in business. Dozens of books, both in America and in Europe, have been encouraging individuals, especially those who aspire to leadership, to be their true selves – to find their ‘true north’.

Alongside this, executives are encouraged to tell their life stories in compelling ways. But is authenticity on its own enough for the exercise of leadership?

There have been some considerable differences between the American and European accounts of authenticity. In the US, it seems that being yourself is both a necessary and sufficient condition for the exercise of leadership. It is as if authenticity is solely the property of individuals.

In Europe authenticity is more commonly seen as a necessary, but insufficient, condition for leaders. Rather, leaders should use themselves skilfully and in context. This view forces us to see authenticity as not just the property of individuals, but of relationships – you can’t be a leader on your own! If leadership is a relationship it should be as much illuminated by sociological concepts as it is by psychological ones. The last hundred years of research on leaders has been excessively psychological.

What does it mean for leaders to act skilfully and in context? Above all, they need the skill of situation sensing – the ability to collect and interpret soft data. To walk into the Frankfurt office and notice that morale is up, to feel that something is not quite right in the marketing department. And of course, a critical part of situation sensing is reading the cultural context.

This essential skill can be developed. Leaders do need to be themselves, but skilfully and in context. Perhaps the real challenge, in this age of endless corporate scandals, is to build authentic organisations, places where people can be their authentic and best selves. 

Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes To Create An Authentic Organization by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones is published by Harvard Business Review Press. 

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