In search of authenticity in a leader: should we start with politicians watching a televised football match?

David Cameron is claimed to be dropping in popularity for his inauthentic behaviours. An example is examined, based on his image as an “authentic” football fan complete with rolled-up sleeves, watching the transmission of the European football cup final with other world leaders

Andreas Whittam Smith of The Independent constructed an entire article around an episode taken as as evidence of the Prime Minister’s inauthenticity of leadership style.

Opinion over analysis

The piece was intended to provide opinion rather than deep analysis. In that respect it has a degree of authenticity. That did not prevent comments in reply which came with a great deal of anger directed at Mr Whittam Smith’s opinions of Mr Cameron, as well as counter-arguments about other politicians.

The article did seem to select some rather contradictory and selective examples to compare and contrast the authentic with the inauthentic. Boris Johnson and Francois Hollande were cited as authentic; Cameron and Sarcozy as inauthentic.

It would have been better to examine the evidence of inauthenticity beyond a simple either-or classification. However, the author of the piece captures one important point about authentic leadership:

What is going wrong for the Prime Minister, David Cameron? His personal standing with the electorate has fallen precipitously, according to opinion polls. I found a small clue to what may be doing the damage in one of the pictures of world leaders attending a summit meeting at Camp David outside Washington last weekend. They had taken time out to watch the Chelsea/Bayern Munich football match.

The photographers had snapped Mr Cameron leaping to his feet with arms outstretched to celebrate Chelsea’s winning goal. It was the football victory salute. What could be more natural? Chelsea had won the Champions League for the first time. Yet it reminded me of the mid-1980s when Mr Cameron was at school.

Was that Mr Cameron’s problem, I wondered? For false notes are damaging in politics, just as authenticity is a great asset.

The authentic leadership concept

There is considerable interest in authentic leadership among researchers at present. A special issue of Leadership Quarterly examined the concept.

A leading advocate is Harvard Professor Bill George, the former business leader, who argues for authenticity as a factor necessary for 21st century leadership.

But leaders may need to be inauthentic at times

The concept is not without its critics. It may be argued that authenticity of belief may be a secondary consideration in dealing with urgent crisis situations. (“He’s a greedy self-centred individual, but I’d want him with me in a tough corner”).

Put another way, leaders need a mask of command, a concept which may need to be considered within discussions of authentic leadership.


The image appeared in various cropped formats around the web. I fould this example of David Cameron, plus other easy-to-identify football fans at the moment of Chelsea’s triumph over Bayern Munich on the website of Pakistan.

Note to subscribers

This blog written as the author prepares for renewal of home-office facilities. More to follow.

2 Responses to In search of authenticity in a leader: should we start with politicians watching a televised football match?

  1. The image of Cameron next to Obama … its not something a seasoned streetwise press man like Andy Coulson or Alistair Cambel would have allowed to happen. So embarrassing for a citizen to see her prime minister being so uncool on the national stage – mask of command or not. Not someone “born to rule” like the Queen would ever been seen gesticulating like Cameron. Dignified it is not.

    But, in Camerons defence, making out you are less posh than you really are is a difficult skill for any leader, it’s perhaps even more difficult than projecting an image of an expensive upbringing.

    Both activities often produces excruciating results in work places around the world, not just those concerned solving with global economic meltdowns. Everyday places –shops, factories and call centers — vibrate to stories of bosses, managers and leaders attempts at communicating authenticity.

    Nevertheless, the notion of meritocracy needs to be perpetuated to some degree and supporting football and sport in general is a good distraction. For leader to signal regional and national pride without being being seen to be playing on the “right wing” is fine line and in this case Cameron has done well. Its not as if was an England vs Germany match.

  2. […] In search of authenticity in a leader: should we start with politicians watching a televised footbal… ( […]

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