The appointment of Canada’s former governor general Michaëlle Jean as the head of la Francophonie is a testament to the relevance of authentic leadership.

Her life story from impoverished immigrant in a violent home to governor general of Canada and now to her contentious appointment as secretary-general of the international group representing French-speaking countries and regions is compelling and a case-in-point for authentic leadership.

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Former governor general Michaelle Jean displays traits of authentic leadership. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Jean’s recent appointment is not unlike her appointment as governor general when some voiced concerns about whether she was the right person as vice regal head of state. Her ability to rise above the criticism, then as now, speaks to her authenticity as a leader.

Revealing research on authentic leadership by Bill George of Harvard University challenges the notions of leaders possessing certain traits, styles and skills. He outlined that authentic leaders ultimately drew extensively from their life stories. They reframed struggles and life events and brought meaning to their exercise of leadership by remaining true to their values and principles shaped by their life story.

The highly credible and evidence-based Center for Creative Leadership in its October 2014 Leading Effectively E-Letter reminds us that “Leadership success starts with authenticity — doing our jobs without compromising our values and personality”. One senses that Michaëlle Jean’s personality shines through in her work. In a visit to a Moncton centre for homeless youth while governor general, she intentionally delayed her departure and, to the dismay of her security detail and handlers, stopped to listen intently to a young person who desperately wanted to speak with her.

'Authentic leadership is defined by learning from experience through courageous self-exploration.'

Authentic leadership is defined by learning from experience through courageous self-exploration. It shuns denial, it aggressively seeks feedback and has more to do with who you are than you who imitate especially in this era of “leadership as a cult of personality” according to Bill George.  The former Medtronic CEO and author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value offers a model that underscores the importance of relationships, values, self-discipline, purpose and leading from the heart.

Michaëlle Jean displays her humanity through her foundation and her tireless work for Haiti and more. Who can forget the attention she garnered for the people of Canada’s North when she ate raw seal’s heart on her first day in the arctic as governor general. True to herself and her values, that event exemplified an authentic leader letting go of how you need to appear and behave. Through her actions, she spoke her truth while likely knowing some would much rather she wouldn’t.

Author Robin Sharma makes a compelling case for leaders speaking their truth while stating “this does not give anyone a license to say things that are hurtful to people. Speaking truth is simply about being clear, being honest and being authentic” he says in an article for the renowned Holden Leadership Center.

As coach, author and Forbes contributor, Margie Warrel writes “leadership is far less about what you are doing than who you are being”.  She makes a strong case for vulnerability, individuality and the power of appreciation in developing into an authentic leader. No one can deny the individuality Michaëlle Jean has brought to all her endeavors.

At a time when we all expect a lot from our community, workplace and political leaders, Michaëlle Jean’s apparent authentic leadership style inspires us all to lead with authenticity.