In Search of Authentic Leadership

Maria Isaksson

Authenticity is about establishing and showing honesty and integrity between your personality, your words, and your actions. What can we learn about authenticity from Emma Watson, the former Harry Potter girl?

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Communication for leaders

Authenticity is a quality most of us probably would like to possess, be identified with, or at least be able to earn. Likewise, most of us are probably ready to agree that someone who is described as pretentious, fake or fabricated is a person lacking trustworthiness and authenticity.

Yet, authenticity is far from an uncomplicated concept or characteristic, and we need to ask ourselves if it is desirable to be authentic in every situation and context, with any type of audience, and for any type of speaker.

Authenticity is one of the most important drivers of good leadership communication. Research shows that leaders who excel at inspiring people – in capturing hearts, minds, and souls achieve great results (Goffee & Jones 2000).

Brand of Magic

Let us look at what leaders can learn from a very special source about being authentic. Emma Watson, the former Harry Potter girl and today United Nation’s Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, gave her first major speech at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York on September 22, 2014.

Her speech, on gender equality and how to fight it, was described as “impassioned”, “powerful” and “rousing” and met with “a thunderous standing ovation”. I join the crowd in their admiration and respect: her message opens my heart, touches my mind, and I realize that it is not what she says, but how she says it. What is it about Emma Watson’s power in person that moves us? What is her particular brand of magic? 

Emma Watson’s speech and person beg many questions about her rhetorical credibility, and perhaps more interestingly - about her authenticity. Because, given her background as an actress, professional speaker and public figure, we do wonder if Emma Watson is acting to be authentic, or is she genuinely really authentic?

Genuinly authentic

I decided to take the question to the executive students in my rhetoric class. They all agreed that Emma Watson is genuinely authentic. Next, they were assigned to explain what it is that makes her authentic. After some negotiation in class between the students and me, our assessment can be summarized under five headings: her tone of voice, her reflective mode and pace, a worried disposition, her compassion, and her modest appearance, all non-verbal qualities that argumentation alone cannot convey.        

Authenticity defined

But first, we need to define authenticity. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines authenticity as “the quality of being real or true”, which tallies with most definitions of authenticity as representing something genuine and original, something worthy of belief and trust. Other definitions take it a bit further and combine it with action, “practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best.” (Peggy Brønn 2011).  

Psychologists define authenticity as the matching of one’s inner thoughts, beliefs, and feelings with one’s outer presentation and behaviors. They believe authenticity involves sensory and emotional qualities rather than purely cognitive or verbal ones (Burks & Robbins: 77).

So, authenticity is about establishing and showing honesty and integrity between your personality, your words, and your actions. Only the first two aspects were relevant for the in-class analysis of Emma Watson’s 12 minute speech.      

Analysis of Emma Watson’s speech

Her tone of voice seems to be the strongest indicator of her authenticity. It is earnest, sincere and humble, never insisting, but intense and sparkling with a gentle musicality, leaving us with a lasting resonance of her message. This is further underscored by her reflective mode and pace, as if she is searching for a deeper, more precise meaning to her words, drawing her audience closer to her.

The camera reveals Emma Watson nervously wringing her hands, seemingly unintentionally, disclosing more of a vulnerable character when facing a professional audience. She is more than just concerned, she is worried, but her worried disposition does create a sympathetic response in us. Whether it is a worry about her own credibility, as the once “Harry Potter girl”, or about the international scene and audience, or about not getting her message across, does not really matter, because it builds up under her compassion for the subject. Her voice and her face are compassionate, and her personal narrative with frequent unflattering examples from her own life leaves no doubt – here is a person who cares, knows what she is talking about, and compels us to act now. Finally, Emma Watson’s strong appeal for action is nicely contrasted with a modest appearance stripped from glossy superficiality: a strict belted white dress, almost like the uniform of a nurse, and a natural look.     

Emma Watson does indeed succeed in managing the impressions of her global audience, and she does it with a quality most of us willingly call authentic.

Brønn, Peggy, Simcic. 2011. “The Business Case for Authenticity”. Paper at Corporate Communication Executive Summit Kleivstua. BI Centre for Corporate Communication. 
Burks, Derek, J. & Robbins, Rockey. “Psychologists’ Authenticity. Implications for Work in Professional and Therapeutic Settings”. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Jan 2012, vol. 52 no. 1, pp. 75-104.  

Goffee, Rob & Jones, Gareth.“Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” Harvard Business Review OnPoint Collection. Sept-Oct 2000, Product no.5890. 
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. 1995 (3rd ed).


This article is published in Communication for Leaders 2014/2015 (Link to E-Magazine).
Communication for Leaders is a Science Communication Magazine published by Centre for Corporate Communication and Department of Communication and Culture at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 29. January 2015

You can also see all news here.