Image credit: Ivelin Radkov

Authentic leaders are, by definition, singular individuals. They possess an array of qualities and skills that enable them to lead. Yet, we shouldn’t assume these attributes are unattainable or too challenging to learn.

Leadership skills are exceptional simply because most of us likely didn’t receive either the education or the upbringing to develop the inner path toward leadership. If mathematics wasn’t routinely taught in school, mastering math would also be a rare achievement. The same is true of leadership.

Culturally, we tend to focus on the external characteristics of leaders: how they present themselves, their intelligence, their style, and their affect. The path to sustainable and genuine leadership, however, is an inner path that can be learned and cultivated.

There are three pillars of authentic leadership. Learning these skills develops genuine leadership ability for corporations, organizations, associations, and families.

Emotional Intelligence

Great leaders communicate with consummate effectiveness. This first pillar of leadership is sourced through emotional intelligence, which is the ability to deeply connect with others through feelings, not simply facts.

Our focus on cognitive intelligence, which devalues emotional intelligence, is stunningly incomplete. The thoughts, ideas, and information we need to share with one another are typically pursued transactionally. We exchange instructions, strategies, and concepts and believe they’ve been received and understood as we intended.

This belief is grossly misinformed. We aren’t robots transacting with one another, but complex humans with unique personal narratives, feelings, and beliefs. The same words or phrases may mean different things to different people. They might inspire some and leave others feeling ambivalent or worse. This this leads to failed, ineffective communication.

Emotional intelligence requires both an awareness of the other’s feelings and beliefs and cognizance of your own stirrings. The subterranean realm of our private, personal existence has a profound sway over the business of business.

From my professional experience, clients don’t typically speak to me about factual or substantive issues they’re having with their bosses or colleagues. Instead, they present their troubled feelings, challenges, frustrations, and miscommunications.

Authentic leaders connect on emotional levels with those around them. They tune in to their people  in order to appreciate how the other person perceives matters, addressing issues that typically go unspoken.

Leaders seek correspondence with those around them. Emotional connectivity facilitates coherent communication. This relatedness prospers when empathy is valued. Empathy, the ability to best appreciate what the other person is feeling and experiencing, allows truly informed communication to prevail.

Radical Emotional Transparency

The concept of radical transparency, a fundamental motif of Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio, proposes that all individuals should openly challenge one other’s positions for the goal of reaching the most credible truth.

Although this endeavor has obvious merits, it doesn’t also consider that we are not only thinking but feeling people. If we pretend that our values, personal history, emotions, relationships, and beliefs don’t spill over into the reasoned and rational discourse, we are sorely misinformed.

Radical transparency must incorporate how our subjective beliefs and feelings filter and inform what we ultimately hear and how we respond. I refer to this as radical emotional transparency.

Leaders engage in deeply effective communication which seeks shared meaning. This collaborative dialogue checks in to assure what we share is received as intended.

This checking-in process is also respectful and sincere, as it enables leaders to get closer to their team. For the musicians in an orchestra to be “in concert” with one another, the conductor must make certain they are all playing from the same score. The same holds true for consummate leaders.


The next pillar of leadership is authenticity. I use the term authentic leadership to evoke the qualities of truly special leaders. Meeting or witnessing such individuals, one notices they are extraordinary. They shine by virtue of their authenticity, which is a very rare quality.

For example, the Dalai Lama exudes authenticity. You simply know you’re in the company of an extraordinary person.

An authentic individual evokes an image of someone who has not been adulterated by fear, concerns with self-worth, or worries about what others may think of them.

Most people are concerned with what others think of them, or more to the point, what they think others think of them. These individuals may disguise, manipulate, or hide their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs due to their insecurity. This is what I call other esteem, which is sadly common, and absent the authentic self-esteem unique leaders possess.

Most people deflect or mitigate their communications and actions because they worry about how they will be seen. From the authentic self, we invest in and articulate our thoughts and beliefs free from the constraint of worries.

Being authentic allows you to be receptive to the feedback and opinions of others; you simply don’t betray your genuine self out of fear. When our thoughts conspire to weave a narrative about why we shouldn’t say or do something, we lose our authenticity.

Authenticity requires a genuine sharing of our inner self. Very often, our actions reflect an intention to avoid certain consequences. And so, we alter or suppress our communications and play it safe. These tendencies diminish our authenticity as they constrain our growth and self-esteem.

Great leaders don’t fall prey to these concerns.

Authentic leaders learn from those around them as the separation between self and others falls away. The core sense of authentic self is always an emergent process, never static. Unfettered by the constraint of worry over how you’re perceived, you’re free to tune into yourself, those around you, and your ever-changing environment.

Embracing Uncertainty

The third pillar of authentic leadership requires a counterintuitive embrace of uncertainty.

Our orientation toward predicting future events—a remnant of Newtonian determinism—has addicted us to seek certainty and predictability and therefore avoid uncertainty. From this paradigm, we see ourselves as separate and detached from future events, which nullifies genuine leadership, as we become spectators rather than leaders.

This state of analytical bondage is contrary to leading. We can’t lead others by sitting back and calculating as if we were playing a chess match.

Leaders must be informed by pertinent information, but not suffocated by an avalanche of data.

When an authentic leader embraces uncertainty to actualize new possibilities, the fear of making mistakes retreats.

What we call a mistake is but a snapshot frozen in time. But time doesn’t stand still. Authentic leaders don’t fret the consequences of their actions as much as they consider the consequences of their inactions.

Participatory Leadership

We need to take a deeper look at the concept of change and the change process. The word change suggests that there are times when things are static and inert, and times when they are not, hence, the concept of change. Quantum physics suggests otherwise. It appears that reality is never static or unchanging. This is why I refer to it as the reality-making process.

The adage, “The only constant is change,” needs to be revised as “Everything perpetually flows.” Great leaders must relish the flow, dive in, and truly lead. This requires seeing uncertainty as your ally, the realm from which new possibilities are created.

This is participatory leadership, as we participate in the unfolding of what we call the future.

These three pillars of leadership create a formidable platform from which to lead others.

Check out the original version of this article, along with a podcast edition you can listen to, on my website.

Want more from me? Check out The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz anywhere you get your podcasts, and be sure to read the book that started it all, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.