“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.” – Oprah Winfrey
It’s amazing how many of us have two sides to our personality, a ‘work me’ and a ‘home me’. At work, we often try to come across a certain way, whether it’s to garner more recognition or to fit in with our managers and colleagues; we end up changing ourselves and how we act. This is especially true in leadership, where managers often feel pressure to fit their personality to match their role. The problem is that by ‘acting the role’ of a leader, those around them often feel like they’re being lied to or deceived.
Then leaders are stunned when their employees don’t like them, don’t trust them and end up leaving. But it could be better if individuals can remain authentic in their leadership approach, they can bring their whole self to work while still being effective, productive and inspiring leaders.
What is authentic leadership?
The idea of authentic leadership has been around for a long time, even if it was known by different names until Bill George’s book ‘Authentic Leadership’ popularised the term in 2003. Since then, the term has become business jargon, often overused and not well enough understood to be meaningful. But there is something behind the jargon – ideas and concepts that have been around for centuries that can help leaders lead people by having a sense of self-awareness, identity, honesty and passion.
We all have a different idea of what authentic leadership is, based on our own knowledge and experiences:
“At its most basic level, authenticity means being genuine – not a replica, not a copy or imitation. Authentic leadership holds making the most of our strengths, recognising and trading off our weaknesses and taking full self-accountability for the impact we have on others. What authentic leadership is not about is adopting the styles or traits of other leaders.” – Steve Robinson
The key behaviours of an authentic leader
The central component of authentic leadership is genuineness, which means every authentic leader is different. However, there are several markers that these leaders tend to share.
- Demonstrate behaviours which enable you to trust in them all of the time – they’re approachable, visible, and they show up in the same way each day
- Take ownership when they have made a mistake and share responsibility for any mistake
- Show the necessary courage to push further up the leadership chain, to question current status quo or defend their people or processes
- Continually commit to their own learning in order to understand themselves as a person and how they and others see the world
- Have an ability to get their ego out of the way - they truly empower and develop others
- They influence and inspire others by revealing a bit about themselves – being an authentic leader means being human and building real connections with people
- Deliver great outcomes over longer periods of time
There is a perceived level of expectation around what a great leader should do and how she/he should behave. These expected norms can create myths about leadership being inspirational, exhibiting unrelenting confidence, having unwavering decision making, showing unshakeable self-belief and revealing no signs of personal weakness. In authentic leadership, whilst some of these may well help in the execution of the role, the real test is somewhat more grounded.
Deep self-awareness: The foundation of building authentic leaders
Self-awareness builds and grows – it’s a lifelong journey of learning from experiences and being able to share these along the way. Self-aware leaders resonate with others by telling stories of success and defeat, of good times and tough times and of accomplishments and setbacks. Truly knowing their values – who they are, what do they believe in, what’s the right thing to do – for the right reason and in the right way is often all that leaders have to help navigate by when the deep mist of uncertainty prevails.
In being able to ‘lift their veil’ and reveal their true selves, authentic leaders transfer humility, credibility and trust to those around them. They generate believability by being ‘human’. People follow them not through the leader’s manipulation, carrot or stick strategy, or through threats or even because of their power or position – but through compelling influence. Authentic leaders demonstrate some vulnerability and at the same time fully understand their genuine influential ‘edge’ with others.
Authentic leaders have a ferocious tenacity on the longer-term goals. They align their personal values, develop future leaders and build sustainable successful organizations.
In a world increasingly impatient for results and demanding immediate outcomes, authentic leadership is continuously tested. The pressures of instant delivery versus longer-term desirable outcomes are a true leadership tension in itself. Authentic leaders though, know what they can and can’t settle or compromise on in the short term – because it will impact on the longer-term outcome.
How to be an authentic leader
An in-depth study by the Harvard Business Review of effective leaders ranging in ages from 23 to 93 found that there is no “cookie cutter leader”. Every person interviewed had a different idea of what an ideal leader looks like, with each individual having a unique combination of characteristics, traits, skills and styles that led to their own success. The one common theme was that all the leaders were consciously or subconsciously taking in their real-world experiences continuously, and using those experiences to frame who they were at their core. As a result, they found the “purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective”.
This study is one that we all can learn from, whether we’re managing other people professionally or not. That’s because the study shows that leaders are not born leaders; they become great leaders throughout the course of their life by taking in experiences and letting it guide them and their leadership style. Often we assume that strong leadership is innate, that you either have it or you don’t, and that employees will automatically be good leaders just because they’ve been promoted into that role. However, like most things, leadership is a skill that has to be learned, refined, and honed over time. Essentially, it’s a continuous learning journey. Applying that way of thinking is something that anyone can adopt well before they reach managerial level, or even before they enter the workforce.
“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet - thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing - consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.” – Lance Secretan
The new reality of work requires agility, flexibility and adaptability of leadership styles and approaches. The current global pandemic has further accelerated the need for authentic leadership. The complexity is only expected to increase around technical, economic, financial and social issues as uncertainty looms over the entire world of work.
Perhaps all of us striving to be our unique, authentic selves will create a collective array of authentic perspectives, values and principles to complex situations. The tensions and conflict here will be vividly apparent but paradoxically this may also give rise to the existence of the one last bastion of stability – authenticity.