Fake It Till You Make It vs. Authentic Leadership: Which Strategy Wins?

Written by Darren Kanthal

March 21, 2023

Fake It Till You Make It vs. Authentic Leadership

I’m pretty sure you’ve heard the saying ‘fake it ‘till you make it.’ Sometimes it means different things to different people, though.

It can be used positively, for example, you might be psyching yourself into doing something tricky but lacking motivation. In the business world, obvious examples are when you have to do some public speaking or present a project to a group of your peers. Many of us don’t love it, and we can become quite nervous. If we ‘fake’ that we’re that energetic, confident or comfortable with speaking in public, maybe it will appear that way, and we will end up motivating ourselves in the process.

There’s nothing like pulling up our big boy/girl pants and just doing it.

However, this usually isn’t the way most people define “Fake It Till You Make It”. Most people think we literally have to fake who we are until we become the thing we are faking. This includes faking that you give a shit about corporate norms and politics, faking a management style that doesn’t suit you, or caring what your co-workers handicap is in golf.

The bottom line is that you’re being fake. Anyone who does this is forgetting who they truly are. This is taxing on the soul and spits in the face of authenticity.

So what’s the alternative? In this blog, I’ll talk about authentic leadership, and how it trumps “Fake It Till You Make It” every time. Instead of faking it, authentic leaders know their true north and remain open to being their true selves.

Being true to you

Being true to you

According to the Kanthal Dictionary, here is my definition:

“Authenticity is defined as being real. It’s being genuine. It isn’t putting up a front, smokescreens, and mirrors.”

Let’s see how far off Webster’s definition is from mine. They define it as:

“True to one’s own personality, spirit, and character.”

YES! Nicely done, Webster—I like that!

When I look at these definitions, I can’t help but remember the dissatisfaction I experienced throughout my corporate career. I recall talking to friends about my lack of authenticity at the time and describing it as “trying to contort my body into a box that I simply did not fit in.”

Every day I would cram, contort, wiggle, and try to find some way to fit in. As you can imagine, this didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes, a leg or arm would squirm out and I would show my unrefined true self. This often included sharing an opinion without discretion or without even being asked. I’d sometimes get defensive or argumentative. And undoubtably, someone would ask me for a meeting to speak about THAT behavior or THAT thing I said.

trying to contort my body into a box that I simply did not fit in

You can probably read between the lines here. I couldn’t fake my corporate career—it wasn’t me.

Flip the script

Here’s an idea – what if instead of ‘faking it ‘till we make it,’ we flat-out acted as authentically as possible until we found the organizations, leaders, and teams that accept us with all our strengths and weaknesses? Imagine if we were entirely true to ourselves and no one expected anything less. What if all the people we worked with were also being true to their own personality, spirit, and character?

What if there was NO faking it?

What if there was just BEING it?

What is Authentic Leadership?

authentic leadership

I have had the pleasure of coaching hundreds of leaders at various stages of their careers. Sometimes they are looking at ways to be more effective in their current role, and other times, they are transitioning towards something else that fits them better. For every single client, I hone in on a few key areas to better understand them:

    • What makes each person tick?
    • What values do they live their life by?
    • Where do they thrive?
    • What makes them happy?
    • When are they at their best?

Seriously, there’s no faking that stuff! I don’t know about you – but when I ‘fake’ being happy, I’m just not happy. Period. And I’m fake – which I hate! I don’t wanna be fake!

When you’re in ease and flow and just being yourself, no front, no fakery, all authenticity and genuity, is it any wonder you smile and laugh more, life seems to conspire in your favor, and great things unfold?

THAT is what I mean by authentic leadership.

Authentic leadership theory is, by definition, being authentically you. You own your actions, apologize when you’re wrong, curse if you curse, reflect if you need time to think, engage your self-awareness when necessary, and make jokes if you apply humor to lighten a situation.

Time after time, I speak to intelligent, outgoing, creative people who have lost touch with their authenticity and core values. What a travesty! The good news is there is a way to become a more authentic leader, understand your emotional intelligence, and employ a greater sense of, self-awareness to enhance your workplace happiness.

How you can practice authentic leadership

I often ask my clients when we begin our work together to take my core values assessment which helps them identify the 10-15 values that are most important to them. Upon receiving their results, I then ask them to focus on their top 5 and take stock of their life as a parent, spouse, child, sibling, friend, and professional.

The question to ask for each value is ‘how are my actions and behaviors respecting, aligning, and honoring (or not) those values?’ That’s the surefire way to get to the heart of who you are and how your actions are showing up in the world.

This exercise can trigger an immediate response and start you on the path of remembering how vital authentic behavior is to who you are. I challenge you to do the same – try my free values assessment here and tell me about it, please! I love this stuff, and I’ve seen it move mountains for people.

my free values assessment

If you are shy or not ready to commit to it, let me share my results with you.

My top six values are (although I often suggest starting with your top 5, sometimes more will resonate – just like my 6th value):

    • Health and wellness
    • Adventure
    • Freedom
    • Comfort
    • Flexibility
    • Connection

When I bring my authentic self to work and life, I speak and act in honor of these values.

If someone is stressed, upset, overwhelmed, or something on the negative side of emotions – I immediately go to their well-being. What’s going on? What’s led to these negative emotions? What do they need for soothing and self-care?

When I bring my authentic self to work and life, and someone is optimistic and curious about solving a problem – I bring a sense of adventure to the problem-solving process. We’ll explore off-the-wall, conventional, and creative solutions. We play! And we often laugh (humor is a value of mine too). Once we lighten the mood on this problem and play with it, I watch as both of us engage in the process with more joy.

When I bring my authentic self to work and life, and someone shares constructive feedback with me about how I’ve shown up (assuming it’s not a triggering event and I respond defensively), I apply my value of comfort and flexibility.

I often tell people, Your comfort level is at the top of the food chain. If you’re not comfortable with something – don’t do it! Let’s explore the discomfort and figure out what to do with it. Flexibility comes into play by not assuming that my way is the best way. I don’t take a rigid approach to the way I work and play. I apply that sense of flexibility by shifting focus, rephrasing questions or curiosities, considering, suggesting, and sometimes recommending other approaches.

Summing it up

What does authentic leadership mean to you at work and home?

What areas are you faking it to fit in?

Are you following what ‘they’ tell you is acceptable, or are you questioning the status quo?

If you are sick of being told by team members that you speak up too much, or not enough, or that you aren’t sophisticated enough, or you’re too polished —perhaps it’s time to embrace your personal authentic leadership style. Instead of living your life measured by other people’s core beliefs, play the game by a set of rules that you actually had a hand in defining.

Great leaders can block out the noise and achieve better job satisfaction by tapping into their authentic leadership style and philosophy.

Now is the time to honor and leverage your strengths based on your authentic preference. Being an authentic leader means that you stop believing everyone else’s BS and insecurities about how they want you to be – and be the very person you are—no more, no less.

Darren Kanthal

Darren Kanthal, Founder of The Kanthal Group, is a values-driven leadership and career coach with over 20 years of experience in HR and Talent Acquisition. Darren is intensely passionate about helping mid-career leaders cut through the BS, do the foundational work, and achieve their greatness.


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