Career Advice

Authenticity: A Key to Making a Good Leader Great

Joerg Schlatterer, Ph.D.

Throughout your studies and career trajectory, you’ve undoubtedly noticed different leadership styles, personalities, and techniques. By now you have come to appreciate some characteristics that drive and motivate you, and perhaps you’ve also noticed leadership traits that have the opposite effect. So, what is a defining characteristic that makes a great leader stand out from others? And what do you glean from your observations to become a great leader yourself? The National Academies of Sciencesand the National Postdoctoral Association2 have described the expectation that graduate students and postdoctoral researchers develop leadership and management competencies throughout their training period. As a research trainee, you might wonder how your research experience prepares you for the leadership and management challenges that you will encounter in your future career.

Often graduate students and postdoctoral scholars do not have the opportunity to be formally trained to efficiently lead and manage projects, people, or both. Working in an academic setting should allow you to learn these competencies as you work on your projects and with your lab mates and collaborators. Those informal opportunities are distinctively different and very likely more challenging than the ones you would encounter as an official supervisor. As a student researcher, you manage and lead without authority.

Any kind of extracurricular activities (e.g., clubs, bands, volunteer committees, sports teams) can provide an additional platform for discovering how to build human relationships that result in motivation, excitement, and the willingness to contribute tremendous amounts of energy.

The journey of developing as an authentic leader starts with looking deep into yourself to identify your values and principles and their origin.

In the workforce, there are leaders who are able to unleash their teams’ potential to achieve outstanding results, and there are other leaders who lack this talent. Good leaders set forth a vision, provide inspiration, demonstrate integrity, communicate clearly, create straightforward goals, set a good example, recognize contributions by team members, supply stimulating work and support, and focus on team interests and needs.

Research results from Bill George et al. in the Harvard Business Review3 suggest that authenticity is a key factor distinguishing the outstanding leaders from the good ones.

What does “being authentic” actually mean? Authenticity is a holistic reflection of a person’s values, experiences, principles, and manners. Authenticity develops over time. An authentic person is true to him- or herself.

Authentic people possess a number of common characteristics that show they are psychologically mature and fully functioning as human beings. Psychologist Stephen Joseph summarized and contrasted the qualities of authentic and inauthentic people as follows:4

Authentic People

Inauthentic People

Have realistic perceptions of reality.

Are self-deceptive and unrealistic in their perceptions of reality.


Look to others for approval and to feel valued.

Are accepting of themselves and of other people.

Are judgmental of other people.

Are thoughtful.

Do not think things through clearly.


Have a non-hostile sense of humor.

Have a hostile sense of humor.

Are able to express their emotions freely and clearly.

Are unable to express their emotions freely and clearly.

Are open to learning from their mistakes.

Are not open to learning from their mistakes.

Understand their motivations.

Do not understand their motivations.


After reading the list of characteristics of authentic and inauthentic people, I am wondering who you would like to see lead you (and your team). Without scientific evidence, I hypothesize that the majority of readers would prefer to have a boss or other team leaders who embody the characteristics of an authentic person. In addition, the traits of authenticity might be desirable when you seek to identify professional role models. As life-long learners, chemists might be interested in developing their authentic selves in order to become role models and outstanding leaders in their field.

The journey of developing as an authentic leader starts with looking deep into yourself to identify your values and principles and their origin. You could begin by considering the following questions...3

1. What experiences and people had an impact on your life?

2. What do you do to assess yourself? Do you use self-assessment tools? In which moments do you feel you are yourself?

3. Which values are most important to you? Do you know when and why you started embracing them?  Have your values changed since your childhood? If so, why?

4. What factors affect your motivation and attitude toward situations in life? What are the external and internal factors involved? How do you balance them?

5. Nobody is perfect. It takes a team of supporters to make any kind of complex project a success. How can the right choice of team members enhance your authenticity and broaden your perspective?

6. As an authentic person, you would be the same individual throughout your professional and personal life. Are you the same when you are around your colleagues, at home, or at a community event? What could hold someone back from integrating various aspects of your life?

7. What does authenticity mean to you in your life? Do you believe authentic behavior can enhance your performance as a leader?

Answering these questions honestly will be the key to determining your authentic self. Write your answers down and revisit them some days later, reflect, and adjust as needed. In addition, I would encourage you to identify a trusted peer (friend, colleague, or family member) together with whom you can go through this exercise. It is likely that this partner activity will confirm or rebut your own assessment, and it will strengthen a relationship built on trust.

As you progress in your career, in your personal life, in your band, in your gardening club, or in any other volunteer organization, you will experience all different flavors of leadership. Attempt to analyze leadership behaviors that are powerful and motivating, or maybe the opposite. I strongly believe you will find authenticity to be one of a leader’s positive behaviors.

Graduate or postdoctoral training is the right time, and also a great time, to reflect on yourself and your own leadership preferences and to hone behaviors that will pave your way to a successful career and life.

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”