Thursday 24 March 2016 5:07 am

Lessons from the US presidential race: How to spot authentic leaders

I'm deputy money editor at City A.M. I focus on personal finance and investing. I'm particularly interested in macroeconomics, pensions and politics. Contact me at

I'm deputy money editor at City A.M. I focus on personal finance and investing. I'm particularly interested in macroeconomics, pensions and politics. Contact me at

With the 2016 presidential race in full swing in the United States, the candidates are gearing up for the final round of state caucuses and primaries in advance of each party’s nomination convention later in the year.

The spotlight has increasingly fallen on the two Democrats and two leading Republicans still in the race, and any controversies that may arise. Did Hillary Clinton deliberately hide information using private mail servers? Is Ted Cruz too wedded to the evangelical movement? Are Donald Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants and border control simply a step too far?

Elections undoubtedly shape our views of leaders, but what exactly do we look for in them?


To some extent, we can identify a leader when we see one.

Academic research suggests that every one of us holds mental prototypes of leaders: elaborate knowledge structures of the characteristics that, in your personal view, distinguish between those you see as leaders – and those you do not.

So if you’re following the developments of an election, you will be likely to encode the characteristics the different candidates display and then compare them to your own image of a leader.

Warmth and competence

Broadly, the characteristics which we ideally look for in leaders are two-fold.

First, they need to be competent, possessing the power and ability to pursue intended actions. But we also want these intentions to show concern for us, the people who they lead, rather than benefiting the pursuit of a personal ideal.

The true test of authenticity comes from combining warmth with competence. Authentic leaders demonstrate both, and that’s what makes people trust and respect them. Authentic leaders remain true to themselves because they act in accordance with deeply held personal values.

Emotions are divisive

Bear in mind, though, that with authentic leadership, it is not only what leaders say that counts, but how they say it. When any leader shows their vulnerability, it prompts a divided response.

Is it right for people in power to act as emotionally as we’ve seen during the US presidential race? It depends. But there are several lessons which every leader can learn from the current US race.

Part of being an authentic leader is reflecting your feelings. Good leaders know their own emotions – negative and positive ones – and will express them, while also being aware of their impact on people’s perceptions. Authentic leaders also build close, nurturing relationships with others. And in these relationships they show their own true emotions.

But this is different to expressing personal emotions publicly. The key lies in aligning actions with words. By making it clear what values they stand for, leaders become predictable and trustworthy.

An authentic leader takes on board multiple perspectives to inform balanced decisions, rather than insisting on personal opinion. And you should avoid hopping from one stance to another. Be firm on what you stand for, and remain open to the views of others.