27 September 2023

The real deal: Does leadership authenticity help men and hurt women?

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John Baldoni* says male and female leaders are judged differently on notions of authenticity.

Image: bankrx

Notions about authenticity, a topic that I have coached and taught for decades, are changing, especially in politics.

“It’s a little hard to say what an ‘authentic’ politician is,” said Richard Skinner, PhD, a frequent commentator on authenticity in politics.

“Most of the time people just use it as a rationalisation for liking or disliking a candidate.”

For example, Republicans regard US President, Donald Trump as authentic because he speaks his mind.

Democrats considered former President Barack Obama authentic because he was always measured, always in control.

There is a grain of truth in each statement, but each plays to an image that reduces individuals to stereotypes rather than people.

Furthermore, authenticity also characterises women in leadership differently, often negatively.

“There’s a long history of female politicians being portrayed as calculated and stiff because the script that we have for politicians is a male script,” Skinner told Politico.

“Oftentimes woman candidates feel that they have to live up to expectations that were framed for men.”

Our perception of how women must behave as leaders is framed by our image of leaders.

I recall hearing Pete Dawkins, a Vietnam combat veteran and a retired lieutenant general, say that an archetypal image of a leader is the nineteenth-century British cavalry officer, complete with horse.

Dawkins himself was not endorsing that notion, merely noting it.


A woman who uses a loud voice on the stump is viewed as strident.

A man who does the same is considered bold.

A woman who speaks critically of an opponent is regarded as a bitch.

A man, by contrast, is viewed as aggressive, but positive.

And when it comes to appearance, women are judged against fashion icons while men can just wear the same suit.

And when it comes to hair, a woman must be quaffed whereas a man need not have hair at all.

If, however, we shift from the external to the internal, we arrive at different notions of women leaders.

According to a 2018 Pew Research study on leadership, majorities did not perceive differences between women and men in charge: “But among those who do see a difference, women tend to be viewed as stronger than men on most qualities.”

“Two examples that apply to both politics and business are being honest and ethical and standing up for what they believe in.”

“Roughly three-in-10 adults say female leaders do a better job than men at being honest and ethical (31 per cent in politics and 30 per cent in business), while relatively few say men do a better job than women (4 per cent in politics, 3 per cent in business).”

“Similarly, about three-in-10 adults say women are better at standing up for what they believe in (30 per cent for politics, 32 per cent for business), while roughly one-in-10 say men are better (11 per cent for politics, 10 per cent for business).”

New generations of women in the workplace, too, are changing expectations.

Today’s Millennial and Gen Z women are the daughters and granddaughters of women who took lead roles in their respective workplaces, in business, government or the social sector.

Additionally, young women and men see women in positions of power that previous generations did not understand.

It is less about women versus men and more about changing our perceptions.

That too alters what it means to be authentic.

Each of us has strengths as well as shortcomings.

For example, men can become equally adept at nurturing others as women.

Women, by contrast, can learn to project authority more comfortably.

Both men and women, too, can learn to act their expected roles.

By acting, I don’t mean dissembling, I mean assuming the role that the team demands.

For example, introverts must assert themselves to lead.

Extroverts need to do the opposite.

More importantly, when it comes to behaviour, men are not the only ones who can be boastful and haughty; similarly, it is not just women who are self-effacing and humble.

Just as men can be jerks, and women virtuous, the opposite is equally valid.

The challenge of authenticity as a leader is to be the self that others need you to be.

In short, the leadership self is selfless, in other words, it’s not about you, it’s about us!

Is that being authentic?

No, but it’s putting the needs of others ahead of yours.

And that’s the first step to claiming your leadership self, one who brings people together instead of driving them away.

Put your personality to one side to be the leader your team needs you to be.

* John Baldoni is an executive coach/educator and author. He tweets at @JohnBaldoni.

This article first appeared at www.forbes.com.

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