Authentic Leadership: Having the Courage to Be Yourself

will respect
and admire you, and
you will have a sense of
congruence that is both
powerful and calming
to others.

Dr. Alicia ChavezDr. Alicia Chavez

Leading from authenticity is not all warm and fuzzy. It takes making the effort to know yourself and summoning the courage to live by your values.

“I find that change often compromises basic important principles, institutional, professional and personal,” Dr. Alicia Chavez, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of New Mexico, told WIHE.

“Being authentic is a constant, daily struggle,” said Dr. Peggy Jablonski, recently VP for student affairs at the University of New Haven CT and now head of Miss Hall’s School for girls in Pittsfield MA, where authenticity is one of its core values. “We are confronted with pressures from all sides that challenge our ability to act from an authentic core.”

They spoke in a panel “Influencing Change from a Foundation of Authenticity” at the NASPA annual conference in Phoenix in March 2012.

Also speaking were Dr. Marilee Bresciani, professor of administration, rehabilitation and postsecondary education at San Diego State University CA; Dr. Lori Reesor, VP for students affairs at the University of North Dakota; and Dr. Susan Longerbeam, associate professor of educational psychology at Northern Arizona University.

When we lead from an authentic center, we think carefully about our vision and values. We communicate our ideas effectively to others and face challenges in a consistent manner. Authenticity sets a purposeful framework for our work and brings out the best in others.

Being an authentic leader can be difficult for women, whose voices, communication styles and life stories or metaphors are different from men’s. Cultural emphasis on women’s physical appearance and the dismissal of women for showing emotion further complicate the challenge to be authentic.

Abiding by your core values

To influence and impact others, upholding core values is essential. “Others will respect and admire you, and you will have a sense of congruence that is both powerful and calming to others,” Dr. Peggy Jablonski said.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. To be consistent in facing ethical issues takes a thick skin. For example, refusing to make a disciplinary exception for a star athlete won’t make you the most popular person on campus, she said.

Views of sexual assault were just starting to change in the 1980s, when she was in her 20s and working on a doctorate. She filled the new position of victim assistance coordinator with the Boston University campus police.

When the son of a prominent university donor sexually assaulted a female sophomore, Jablonski supported the victim in dealing with the hospital, the police and the district attorney’s office. Three days before the court hearing, a senior BU administrator asked her to help convince the student to withdraw her complaint.

She replied that her role was to support the student in whatever decision she made and not to interfere in the legal process. Two weeks later she was laid off, allegedly because they needed someone with a counseling degree.

After consulting a lawyer, she decided not to sue but negotiated a good severance package. As part of the deal, she agreed not to speak about the matter during the year her benefits continued. She soon got a better job and her career in student life took off. “I lived to continue the fight another day,” she said.

After much soul searching, she eventually wrote a column about the incident for the student newspaper. Others appreciated her strong advocacy for women and students in a difficult culture. “By being true to yourself, your core values and principles, you will be able to lead a purposeful life and find fulfillment and happiness,” she said.

When your core values are challenged, she suggests:

  • Prepare by playing out best and worst-case scenarios.
  • Pursue professional development in communication, conflict resolution, problem solving and organizational culture.
  • Strive to understand the organizational and leadership culture where you work. If it’s a bad fit for you, look for another job.
  • Know yourself well enough to trust your intuition.

Bringing your whole self

“For me, authenticity is bringing our whole selves to our work, our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits,” Dr. Alicia Chavez told WIHE. Engaging our complex selves engages the complexity of others, bringing out rich possibilities for growth. As American society becomes increasingly diverse, it is more important than ever to engage with different perspectives. We need wisdom and not just knowledge.

Women and minorities often face backlash when they bring heart, body and spirit to the office, while white men get praised for doing so. As a Mestiza (Native American and Spanish American), she finds it normal to bring her whole self to work. In addition to backlash, misunderstanding results from lack of cultural and gender awareness.

She was dean of students at the University of Wisconsin– Madison in 2000 when the school inadvertently stirred up a hornets’ nest. Unable to find a photograph to show student diversity, they doctored a photo of white football fans by inserting an African American student’s face into the crowd without his permission. Media nationwide mocked the school’s Photoshop diversity.

As dean she offered support and assistance to the student, who was being hounded by reporters. She also met with groups of students of color who were upset. She heard calls for the resignation of the white male leader who had authorized the doctored image.

Lunching with the man a few weeks later, she could see he was discouraged. His misguided action had aimed at a laudable goal, increasing diversity on campus. He told her that he had met with minority students and felt that they hated them.

She asked why. He described behavior that looked like hatred to him but not to her. His cultural upbringing had discouraged public displays of emotion, so he did not know what to make of them. She suggested meeting with some of the students, sharing how he was feeling, asking for their help and applying as many of their ideas as possible.

Crossing cultures successfully requires us to be authentic. Now in the Southwest, she and Longerbeam are co-leading a faculty development project on culture and college teaching. “We regularly converse about why we do things culturally and as women,” Chavez said. Sharing openly about their different cultural backgrounds lets them partner successfully to address complex issues of gender, ethnicity, identity and privilege.

To bring your whole self and encourage others to do likewise, she suggests:

  • Make time to reflect on and process your feelings.
  • Remind yourself of your deepest values and beliefs.
  • Consider walking for a moment in another’s shoes.
  • Imagine someone else’s good intentions.
  • Look for the good in others.
  • Expect others to be similar and different.
  • Create ways to encompass many ways of being— yours and others’.
  • Call forth and trust in your greatest self.

Heeding your inner voice

Her yoga instructor told Dr. Marilee Bresciani that “being authentic was the willingness to be with what we felt and thought and to be OK with those feelings and thoughts.” Authenticity means recognizing when we’re angry or bored without trying to talk ourselves into feeling differently.

Feeling guilty about our thoughts or feelings is inauthentic and unconstructive. So is making up stories in our heads about what other people are thinking about us. Getting caught up in an agenda of personality and control leads to manipulative behavior, the opposite of respect.

Suppose you are invited to serve on a prestigious committee. To decide whether to do it, pause to listen to the still small voice within. Does the invitation resonate with you? Will it help you move in directions that fit you now or in the future, or will it pull you off course?

When outside pressures push you toward choices that may feel inauthentic, she suggests:

  • Journal about the situation.
  • Talk about it with a trusted friend or mentor.
  • If time doesn’t allow for journaling or consultation, try to work through the process in your mind and heart.
  • Trust your gut.

The message from these women is that being authentic leaders is one way that women bring themselves and their values to the table.


Cook, Sara Gibbard. (2012, October). Authentic Leadership: Having the Courage to Be Yourself. Women in Higher Education, 21(10), 1-2.

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