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What Is the Real Meaning of Authenticity in Relationships?

A new paper dissects the qualities of being real in your relationships.

Key points

  • Authentic leadership theory (ALT) emphasizes transparency and ethics.
  • A newly-published reply to what ALT’s originators argue is “gaslighting” clarifies boundaries of transparency.
  • Ensuring you strive to be your best self can help foster the growth of yourself and of those you care about.
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Authenticity may seem to be a desirable quality in your closest relationships, but is this really true or even possible?

Consider what you can learn from the theory of “authentic leadership (ALT).” This approach proposes that the ability to inspire and motivate others rests on whoever is guiding them to be self-aware, balanced, open, and able to make decisions based on a solid ethical core. When you think about someone in your life who qualifies as an authentic individual, you no doubt feel that this is someone you admire and trust.

This seemingly useful theory has recently come under fire as a theory of leadership. Understanding why and how it applies to your own life could be helpful in your relationships in general, including those based on strong emotional bonds.

Authentic Leadership Under Fire

In a new paper, Texas Tech University’s William Gardner, along with West Texas A&M University’s Kelly McCauley (2023), strong ALT advocates, present a vigorous defense against a 2021 critique (Einola & Alvesson, 2021) in which the claim was made that ALT is “not only wrong” but “perilous to those who believe in it.” Gardner, one of the originators of ALT, retorts with his own charge: “Are Einola and Alvesson gaslighting?”

Such strident language is rarely seen in scholarly publications, in which even those on opposite sides of a theoretical or empirical issue stay away from personal attacks, at least in print. Apart from the irony involved in this situation, in which ethics and honesty rest at the core of the argument, the controversy provides important insights into what it means to be authentic and why this matters.

Authenticity in Relationships

When you think about it, wouldn't you rather be in a relationship, leader-follower or otherwise, with a person whose emotional signals provide an accurate set of cues regarding how they feel in a given situation? This is not someone who will put on a fake smile just to please or manipulate others but whose laughter, sadness, or apparent concern about you is consistent with the way that person actually feels.

What's more, in the words of the Gardner-McCauley research team, someone who embraces the qualities of authenticity helps you “grow and develop through guidance and support.” Given that close romantic relationships become stronger and closer through the fostering of mutual growth, it may seem hard to imagine authenticity coming at a cost.

It is true, however, that it’s impossible to be 100 percent authentic 100 percent of the time. There will, in the words of Gardner and McCauley, “be times when a leader’s felt emotions are misaligned with the display rules embedded in the situation.” The individual must then engage in “surface acting” to portray more appropriate emotions for the setting (p. 806).

As an illustration, they cite the case example of a Baptist pastor in West Texas who must, within the same day, attend events as divergent in their emotional demands as a funeral and a baptism. After he leaves the funeral feeling saddened and weary after saying goodbye to the departed, this now emotionally overworked clergy must bury those feelings under the guise required for the joyous occasion of welcoming a new life.

In relationships, similarly, there are times when you have to engage in this form of what’s called “emotional labor.” Perhaps you had an upsetting day at work, or the kids are really getting to you, but you sense that sharing this with your partner wouldn’t be appropriate, at least at that moment. You have to cover up your feelings, making you “inauthentic” at the time.

Being a good relationship partner means, then, that you’re able to balance your desire to be honest and open with the exigencies of the situation. It does not mean that you constantly try to manipulate or present a false view of yourself to the person you’re closest to in the world.

What, if Any, Are Authenticity's Perils?

The so-called gaslighting in the ALT debate is based on the charge by Gardner and McCauley that Einola and Alvesson have rewritten history by criticizing them for making claims they state they never made and unfairly challenging their scientific methods.

Apart from these scholarly back-and-forths, there might logically be a downside to the idea of authenticity in relationships. The cost of emotional labor can be made artificially higher when you feel that you must always reveal your inner feelings. The Einola and Alvesson critique suggests that “leaders who do not live up to ALT’s idealistic standards may experience a sense of failure or identity problems” (p. 810). However, the original ALT and its clarifications incorporate such failures as part of the process. You don’t have to get down on yourself if circumstances require that you are less than fully transparent or have to make game-time decisions about whether to engage in a temporary cover-up.

Thus, built into the idea of authenticity is the idea that you can't always behave up to a set of unrealistically high standards. The important point is that, overall, when you’re being transparent and ethical in a relationship, you help to “foster feelings of psychological safety and trust” while “promoting the development” of both yourself and others (p. 810). You don't have to give up on yourself just because you had to put on a false front, nor should you give up on your partner if they hide their feelings based on their evaluation of how you might react at the moment.

To sum up, academic bickering aside, the defense of ALT offered by the Texas authors provides useful guidance, whether it’s a leader-follower or an intimate partner context. Aiming to be your “best self” (p. 810) can only help you and those you care about continue to strive toward relationships that promote growth and trust.


Gardner, W. L., & McCauley, K. D. (2022). The gaslighting of authentic leadership. Leadership, 18(6), 801–813. doi: 10.1177/17427150221111056

Einola, K. and Alvesson, M. (2021) The perils of authentic leadership theory. Leadership 17, 483–490.

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