by V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

“Be authentically ready and readily authentic.”

~ V. S. Ravi Elangkoh

In Part 1 of our series on “Authentic Leadership”, we inquired about the meaning of authentic leadership, and contrasted it with counterfeit leadership.

Here in Part 2, let us consider the next question that is very likely to follow naturally: Why authentic leadership? Isn’t transformational leadership or servant leadership good enough as a leadership model/profile for us to emulate?

In other words, is authentic leadership the ideal type of leadership? The short answer is no. None of the 1,000 or more studies conducted by scholars over the past 50 years has yielded a definitive profile of the ideal leader1, and very fortunately so. Otherwise, if those scholars had managed to pinpoint such a profile, there would be the risk of stereotyping, with many of us misconstruing that it is a specific pre-set leadership style that brings about success.

Sound Substance trumps Superficial Style

Filing CabinetAnalyzing case studies of leadership styles in successful organizations has its merits, but there is a limit to its application. A potential pitfall is to simplify leadership into a classification of styles from which organizations can pick and choose their leaders – somewhat akin to selecting garments from a catalogue. If leadership style becomes too important as a selection criterion, then leaders are reduced to just being tradable commodities.

My belief is that authentic leadership starts from substance, not style. Style is merely the canister that holds the contents, the outer embodiment of the inner essence. This belief, which was culminated from my 25 years of professional interaction with leaders from diverse cultures, levels, organizations and industries, is supported by the findings of George et al. (2007).2

Consider this scenario: Why is it that when Leader P tells his people to buck up and make more money, the people listen, but when Leader Q does the same, the people rebel?

Here is a possible reason: People trust Leader P, but doubt the motives of Leader Q. Leader P comes across as since while there seems to be something phony or fishy about Leader Q.

If you are authentic in your values, beliefs and actions, then it is no longer so much about whichever outward style you adopt; what matters ultimately is the deep-seated substance within you. Although an impressive charming style might initially captivate others, it is the genuine substance within a leader that will endure the test of time and trials.

For instance, you could be a strict disciplinarian but still well respected and highly effective because of your sincerity in instilling high standards for the good of your people and the organization. People prefer a firm leader who can be caring when there the need arises, rather than a weak leader who is constantly amicable but fails to rise to the occasion during challenging times when it really matters.

However, there is a caveat in this principle of substance trumping style. Although substance is more essential than style, it does not give you an excuse to be grumpy or to behave curtly to others. Others might choose to overlook your sullenness because of the inner good they see in you, but you must do your part to work on your temperament and improve your communication skills. Why should magnetic personalities be associated with charismatic leaders only? Authentic leaders can be charming and affable too!

Authentic Leadership Readiness

Man biting penOne of the acid tests of an authentic leader is how you behave on the worst day of your life. If you can remain positive and maintain your integrity under intense pressure, then your leadership prowess is authentic.

If you perform well only when you have a great team around you, with all the finances you need, all the tools you require and all the encouragement you want, then nothing distinguishes you from the myriad of average leaders out there. When budgets are slashed and human capital is downsized, average leaders will buckle under less-than-ideal circumstances.

During the bull markets in the early to mid-1990s, practically everyone who invested in stocks on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange made gains. Even those who had scant knowledge in finance were able to reap satisfactory profits. They became so-called successful financial investment leaders overnight. All it took was the guts to invest money, whether begged, borrowed or one’s own. I heard of corporate executives who abandoned their part-time MBA studies simply to focus more attention on the stock market. In the end, unauthentic investment leaders who mistook their luck for smartness suffered substantial losses when the share prices plunged. If you don’t possess adequate mastery, then you aren’t ready to be an authentic leader because you are unable to sustain your leadership position and influence.


To assess your authentic leadership readiness, here are a few questions for you to reflect on:

  • Have you been exposed to very challenging situations? How did you behave then? Did you take out the pressure on someone else? Did you say or do something you regretted later?
  • Do you have adequate personal mastery in the area you are leading? Or is your successful performance heavily reliant on external elements, e.g. a fancy job title and benefits/perks, a particular colleague’s skills, a specific technology, or a large working budget? If any of those external elements is removed, can you still perform well?
  • If no one was looking and there was no way anyone could ever find out, would you lower your quality standards or compromise your ethical values?
  • Do you believe that since many leaders out there are not very ethical, then you are justified in behaving the same way?

Wherever you go or whatever organization you are in, your authenticity (or lack of it) will be revealed in the way you handle different situations, whether adverse or auspicious. Therefore, be authentically ready and readily authentic.


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Photo credits

Image 1 courtesy of Cool Design

Image 2 courtesy of Imagery Majestic