Leadership: Leaders Demonstrate Authenticity

Leadership Blog



My wife and I are in the process of having a house built. While we have lived in model homes of new communities, we have never been involved from the ground level. It has been fascinating to watch the initial framing, the roof trusses, the shingles, the insulation and siding, the interior framing, plumbing, electrical work, dry wall, and finishing. I am thankful that God has given certain people the skills to build a house!


While I don’t know much about building a house or plumbing or electrical work, I do know this, one does not start building a house with the roof. If there is no foundation and framework, there can be no roof.


Too many times leaders try to put up the roof before attending to the foundation. I think, especially as church leaders, that we are called to lead in a way different than what has been practiced in the past. That new way of leading is about attending to the needs of those with whom we work and the congregation we serve. 


“Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning being human.”1 There are basic human needs at work in the lives of the people we lead. These needs include a connection to others, being valued, making a difference, and honoring and being honored by others. Leadership that demonstrates authenticity is a leadership that recognizes those needs and strives to meet those needs in the partnership between the leader and those being led.


Authenticity as a Moral Ideal

When writing about authenticity, Charles Taylor speaks of it as a moral ideal.2 When asked what he means about authenticity as a moral ideal, Taylor writes, “I mean a picture of what a better or higher mode of life would be, where ‘better’ and ‘higher’ are defined not in terms of what we happen to desire or need, but offer a standard of what we ought to desire.”3 He places this definition against the notion of authenticity as being “’…doing your own thing’ or ‘finding your own fulfillment,’” or being your own person.4


Simplistically stated, authenticity is when people adjust to a particular standard for what is right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly as opposed to people expecting others to adjust to their personal definitions–which serve their personal purposes.


Taylor describes this standard of authenticity as “a pre-existing horizon of significance.”5 This horizon has two features. First, the horizon is established or put in place by a particular authority. As Christians, we would say that the authority behind the standard is God. And we see God and God’s nature through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, the horizon has certain values that are used to determine right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. For Christians, from our belief in God revealed thru Jesus Christ, we lift up the values of:

  • Inter-connectedness of all people, cultures, places, and nature.
  • Each person is loved by God and thus to be loved by us and others.
  • Honoring the integrity of others, that no one’s value as a person should be violated based on their race, gender, nationality, economic level, age.
  • Respect. Respect literally means looking at a person a second time, to determine whether the original judgment we made about them was accurate.
  • Freedom and accountability, instead of controlling a person’s actions, give them the freedom to act and hold them responsible for their actions.
  • Engaging in actions that improve the quality of life for others.

It is important to establish this understanding of authenticity to understand why authenticity is an important quality of a leader that creates an environment where mission can thrive.


In the book The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter state that 3 mental qualities are to be applied for a leader to attend to the needs of those with whom they work. These activities are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Selflessness
  • Compassion.

Let’s unpack each mental quality.



I remember a colleague describing his mentor in this way, “When he was with you, he was with you.” While this might sound like doublespeak, there is a powerful truth in the statement. Have you ever been talking with someone, and they are looking everywhere else, checking their phones, squirming in their chairs, and responding in ways that let you know they aren’t hearing what you are saying? That is a person who is with you, but not with you. Now, think about a person who puts their phone down, sits still and looks at you as you are talking, and responds in ways that let you know they are listening. That person is with you when they are with you. Mindfulness can make this quality possible.


Hougaard and Carter define mindfulness as “paying attention, in the present moment, with a calm, focused, and clear mind.”6 In doing so, the way we see what is going on around us is transformed into a perspective that is more constructive than reactive. Mindfulness transforms our perspective. 


Hougaard and Carter state there are 2 key qualities of mindfulness—focus and awareness. “Focus is the ability to concentrate on a task at hand for an extended period of time with ease. Awareness is the ability to make wise choices about where to focus your attention.”7 It is the ability to sit by a lake, patiently waiting and paying attention to your task of fishing, and knowing it is better to pay attention to the bobber on the fishing line than on the water skier across the lake. The authors describe it this way. “We are focused on the people we are with and the task we do. And at the same time, we have awareness and the ability to see our unconscious bias and regulate accordingly…[thus helping ] us to be mentally agile and effective.”8


I love to watch college basketball. Most of the time I watch the games on television, but I do try to attend games. I see more of the game when I watch it on TV. When I am at the game, I notice the players, the refs, the coaches, the bench, the cheerleaders, the band, all the while smelling the hot dogs from the vendor. Thus, I miss portions of the game. We are prone to distraction as people, mindfulness helps us regain focus and improve our awareness of what is happening. 



A few years ago, the organist of the congregation I served won the American Guild of Organists National Competition for Organ Improvisation. He is brilliant at improvisation. The following Sunday, the organist was back at the organ bench of our church. During the Hymn of the Day, I looked up in the Organ Gallery. At the console was not only the organist, but an elementary aged student from the congregation. The young student was taking piano lessons. That day, for the Hymn of the Day, the young student played the melody line of the hymn and our organist improvised around him. It was beautiful and inspiring. The organist displayed selflessness at that moment, inspiring the young musician and inspiring the congregation. Selflessness inspires and creates energy.


The book Good to Great, written by Jim Collins, is quoted by Hougaard and Carter. Collins lifts the importance of humility for a leader. Based on his research, humility is “when leaders are able to keep their egos in check and always put the organization’s goals before their own.”9 Hougaard and Carter write, “Selflessness is the wisdom of getting out of your way, the way of your people, and the way of your organization to unleash the natural flow of energy that people bring to work.”10


Early in my ministry, I was quite full of myself as I was telling an older pastor all that I was accomplishing and how my congregation would not be where they were if it were not for me. She looked at me and said, “Remember, the congregation existed before you got there. It will continue after you leave. No one is indispensable.” Sometimes we are humble and sometimes we are humbled. Either way, humility makes a difference when a leader demonstrates that quality. Also remember, as soon as you say, “I’m humble”, you no longer are.


Humility, though, is not simply about weakness or wishy washiness. Humility, according to Hougaard and Carter is “the powerful combination of selflessness and self-confidence.”11 They go on to say, “You’re not worried about being taken advantage of, because you have the confidence to speak up for yourself…At the same time, you’re not driven by your own interests.”12 The focus is always on what is best for the congregation. 


At meetings, people are prone to say things that are less than beneficial. While the temptation is to lay into them, I encourage this question, “How is what you said helpful to the congregation?”


Here are the observable traits of selflessness that Hougaard and Carter lift:

  • You don’t worry about receiving praise;
  • You pass along the credit for the achievements to others;
  • You provide inspiration and cultivate a sense of inclusion;
  • You offer service rather than expect others to be of service to you; and,
  • Your mission is to contribute to the greater good.13



In my January blog on Leadership, I drew a distinction between compassion and empathy. Here is what I wrote:


Compassion can mean “to feel or to suffer with.”14 In addition, there is a sense that compassion is “to be with in strength.” It indicates that a compassionate person is aware of the emotional state of the other person and desires wholeness and strength for that person. The words and behaviors of the compassionate person serve the purpose of moving a person to wholeness, health, and strength. 


Of the words compassion, sympathy, and empathy, compassion is the oldest (going back to 1340) and sympathy (having a similar definition as compassion) the second oldest (going back 450 years). Empathy did not come into use until the 1930’s. Originally, empathy was used in the arts community in Germany, literally meaning when a person was “projecting oneself into a work of art [and how that] would enable a view to appreciate better the creation being observed.”15  After 1950, the word empathy “jumped from the realm of art appreciation to that of human relationships.”16 Taking on the meaning of “to feel in,” empathy took on the notion of feeling the same emotions as the other person. This “would enable one to understand the other person fully, to be more sensitive to his or her condition, and to better appreciate his or her dilemma.”17 So, instead of showing a person compassion for the purpose of their wholeness, health, and strength, a person showing empathy becomes like the other person and feels the same feelings, and as a result, can be overwhelmed by those same emotions. 


Hougaard and Carter define compassion as “the quality of having positive intentions for others.” When a person receives compassion they “are empowered to skillful action.”18


Compassion works in tandem with wisdom. It happens this way. We are mindful that what we do and say has an impact on others. We are also mindful of what needs to be accomplished by the congregation or ministry team. One is not more important than the other. They are held in tension. “Wisdom is the thoughtful, measured, and discerning judgement that allows us to keep professional measures and strategic objectives in mind while acting to bring the most benefit and happiness to the people involved.19


Jeff Weiner says it this way, “Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, compassion without wisdom is folly. Combining compassion with wisdom helps create a framework that effectively informs tough decisions and helps keep the bigger picture in sight.”20



“Observe your thoughts as they become your actions. Observe your actions as they become your habits. And observe your habits as they shape your life.”21


Authenticity shares the same root word as author. Authenticity is the character of our lives that writes our story. That character applies the qualities of mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion to leadership. In doing so, the leader can create an environment in which mission can thrive. 


Hougaard and Carter offer three questions that authenticity leads us to ask of our lives regularly:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I value?
  3. What does it mean to be a leader?

We will never have the right or perfect answers to these questions, but I think that if we are asking these questions, we will continue to grow in significant ways as leaders.22



1 Javier Pladevall, CEO of Audi Volkswagen as quoted in The Mind of the Leader.
2  Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity, page 16. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., page 29.
5 Ibid., page 38.
6 Hougaard, Rasmus & Carter, Jacqueline. The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results, page 9. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, Massachusetts, 2018.
7 Ibid., page 11.
8 Ibid., page 12.
9 Ibid., page 13.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid., page 16.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2007. Church Publishing, Inc.: Hew York, New York.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid.
19 Hougaard and Carter, page 19.
20 Ibid, page 18.
21 Ancient Chinese Proverb quoted by Hougaard and Carter on page 23.
22 If you want to explore the concept of Mindfulness, see Appendix A of the book The Mind of the Leader. Also see their previous book, One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness.