In recent years authentic leadership has become a buzzword, but what does it mean to be an authentic leader? The desire to be true to ourselves and to have meaningful human connection long predates authenticity becoming part of organisational vernacular. Being an authentic leader is knowing and showing who you really are, and behaving in alignment with your values and beliefs. However, authentic leadership is also a subjective concept.
Authentic Leadership is also Situational Leadership
Like facets of a diamond, there are many sides to authentic leadership, mirroring the different professional environments and scenarios we find ourselves in. These are the leadership qualities we demonstrate when interacting with direct reports or teams. The aspects of our personality that come to the fore when meeting clients. The leadership style we’ve honed to survive and maybe thrive in the organisational culture we inhabit.
What authentic leaders know
Authentic leadership means we will adjust our attitude and behaviour depending on the situation we are in and who we are with. But here’s an important point – we will compromise, but we won’t compromise the entirety of who we are solely for the comfort of others.
What authentic leadership is not
Being an authentic leader is not about incessantly expressing our unfiltered opinions. It’s about knowing our views and consciously choosing to share them or not, depending on the scenario we are in. We will stand up for ourselves, but we also know when to sit it out. Authentic leadership theory does not give us the license to be rude or headstrong. We have the self-awareness to look inward and the social awareness to assess our surroundings.
How to start becoming a more authentic leader
The road to authenticity starts when we set our intention to be genuine. When we understand our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, it’s easier to know when we are being real with other people and when we are not. In other words, we work to enhance our self-awareness. Identifying the situations (or the employees, teams, managers, and clients) that pull us from our sense of authenticity, is a logical next step. We start to practice authentic leadership when we are self-aware enough to notice when we ignore our better judgement, are insincere in our speech, don’t give honest feedback, or act in a way that contradicts our values.
Developing your Authentic Leadership Style
Being authentic is standing, unsteadily at first, in the presence of our weaknesses. We learn to accept constructive feedback. We know and honour our personal story and leadership journey. We also focus on dismantling barriers we may have erected creating the space to showcase our talents, abilities and personality, all the ways we are uniquely ourselves.
As someone who has worked as an Executive Coach and Trainer for twenty years, I’ve observed many successful leaders. I’ve also encountered others who despite their best efforts struggle with the demands of being in a leadership role in an organisation.
We all do our best as leaders
Some individuals excel as leaders, achieving results for their organisations whilst inspiring loyalty in those fortunate enough to work with them. Others enhance their effectiveness by learning on the job. Some managers are simply in the wrong role, their skills and personality more aligned with the subject, product or process expertise.
Old and new Leadership Theories
In the past, leadership was seen as having power over others. The mentality was ‘do this because I’m the boss.’ In today’s complex world and especially in organisations seeking to harness the full capability of their staff, authentic leadership is about empowerment. No one person can have all the answers. A successful leader will establish an environment and processes that allows and encourages employees to do good work.
Authentic Leadership Challenges
Today, there are many paradoxical skills that authentic leaders have to balance. Seeing the bigger picture, whilst retaining attention to detail. Scanning different time horizons, positioning for the long-term but still doing what needs to be done in the short-term. Being able to make tough decisions, yet remaining empathetic and open to alternative perspectives.
More challenges of Authentic Leadership
Authentic leaders must navigate a path between the reality of the balance sheet and building relationships. Learn to delegate but never abdicate responsibility. Staying up to date on issues impacting their industry and sharing this knowledge with their teams. Leading by example whilst simultaneously encouraging employees to shine. It can appear that today’s manager has to be an equal parts accountant, visionary, counsellor and cheerleader.
The foundation blocks of Authentic Leadership
A leader who lacks emotional intelligence and effective communication skills will always struggle. Why? Because leaders only achieve with and through other people. A key aspect of every leadership role is to provide clarity and certainty, to determine what’s important, what should get people’s attention and what shouldn’t. Without well-honed communication skills, without the ability to discern information, the willingness to listen, to check for understanding and to adjust leadership style for different audiences, staff engagement and alignment behind the company vision or mission will remain wishful thinking.
Authentic Leadership Skills
You can work on becoming a better leader by developing and practising these authentic leadership skills and characteristics.
Every organisation has a value statement that includes the word integrity. The most common definition is being honest and having strong moral principles, but the second definition of integrity is the state of being whole and undivided. In other words, authentic leaders are aligned within themselves, they have an internalized moral perspective. Having done the self-reflection, and the personal development work and learned the lessons from their own personal story, they’ve reached a point where they are comfortable in their own skin. Authentic leadership then becomes a demonstration of their lived values and beliefs.
Have a broad business perspective
With curiosity and creativity, an authentic leader uses the reasoning mind, as well as intuition to see, hear and acknowledge all perspectives. This helps to build relationships and give honest feedback. They view challenges through a more inclusive lens. It’s that sense of connection with intuition, harnessing the wisdom of the heart and gut, not just the head, that separates them from rational corporate man.
Foster employee engagement
Authentic leaders are connected with their own sources of inspiration and of course, are inspiring to others. When you think of leaders you admire, perhaps people you’ve worked with, it’s not just that they’ve been a wonderful mentor or a source of inspiration, you probably formed lasting bonds because you know they’re an advocate championing your own development.
Show ethical behaviour
As a byproduct of integrity and authenticity, a successful leader is cognisant of the dignity of the individual. They give porters the same respect as presidents. They don’t have to be educated on diversity. When we think of leaders we admire, such the Obamas, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi, business leaders such as Richard Branson or experts in the area of authentic leadership like Marshall Goldsmith, or Bill George, it’s their humanity and their respect for people that resonate with us. We view them as our potential in action.
Traditionally, companies exist to make a profit. Whilst authentic leaders are comfortable in the world of business and finance, for them work is more than shareholder value and providing for material needs. The work environment is a space to build community and a sense of belonging. Work itself is a vehicle for self-reflection and lifelong learning.
We know people join organisations but they leave managers and the main reason they leave is that they don’t feel valued or appreciated. Authentic leaders know that appreciation takes many forms. From the simple and zero-cost ‘thank you,’ willingness to listen and value input, to completing performance appraisals, developing a coaching mindset and facilitating flexible work schedules, all the way to monetary bonuses.
Give honest feedback
In most cases, employees need to hear what they are doing right instead of constantly hearing what they are doing wrong. People like their efforts to be recognised and to receive feedback. A good people manager is skilled in delivering feedback, in a timely, appropriate and digestible way. Whilst we might love to bring our whole selves to work, authentic leaders also coach people as to what aspects of their best selves are best left at home.
From my experience, the vast majority of people want to do good work. It is the role of an effective leader to define what good work looks like and to ensure the team has the skills and resources to do good work. Trust underpins all working relationships. If trust is not present, business processes are designed with the worst behaviour of the worst people in mind. Micromanagement takes hold and orders will replace open discussion. When trust is present, a manager will empower their teams to think for themselves.
You create an inclusive environment
We all like to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We crave a sense of belonging, a sense that our opinion matters and that we are contributing to a worthwhile endeavour. Ideally, we want our work to have purpose and meaning. It is the role of the manager to help shape that meaning, to ensure that his or her people are aware of the impact of their contributions. We like to know that our manager is in our corner.
The biggest factor in shaping the morale of a team, or an organisation, is the personality and behaviour of the leader. Effective leaders are optimistic yet remain grounded in reality. They are positive, approachable people who role model the attitude and behaviours they would like to see in their teams. In this regard, they lead by example.
In challenging times we all crave certainty and authentic leaders know this. We want to know the basecamps as we climb the mountain of change. Even if there isn’t certainty around the big issues of job security or salary, employees need to feel certain that their manager appreciates them, recognises their efforts, is concerned for their well-being, will treat them fairly, will act as their advocate and will keep them informed. Authentic leaders remain results-focused, and mission-driven and steer their teams by the North Star, the key performance indicators that measure their individual and collective success.
Collaboration is the act of individuals working together, across functions, layers of management, and departments to make unified decisions. Without collaboration personal fiefdoms reign and an ‘us versus them’ mindset will create a toxic culture. The unrealised synergy will negatively impact productivity and results. Whilst a leader may have a specific responsibility, their function is part of a bigger picture and they are aware of the interdependence. They are happy to share information and participate in best practices because they recognise that everyone is a resource that can be leveraged to make smarter decisions.
You know your stuff
Authentic leadership is not just about the ‘touchy-feely’ stuff. Soft skills and emotional intelligence are matched with inner resolve and competence. Effective leadership still encompasses product and/or process expertise. When a manager has earned their stripes by having been in the trenches, that been-there, done-that experience adds to their competence and gravitas.
So what is Authentic Leadership
Authentic leaders know that employees like to be treated as human beings, not functionaries and not merely as a salary on a spreadsheet. Staff are not naïve, they know when a manager is manipulating them or going through the motions. Being an authentic leader means encouraging and supporting your team by facilitating their personal growth, coaching them to reach for their potential and in turn expanding the potential of the organisation. And the paradox is that by focusing on others you not only build trust and loyalty, but you become a better, more effective and more authentic leader in the process.