How to be a more authentic leader

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership” —Harvard Business Review, January 2015.

So what is authenticity?

“The secret is authenticity. The reason people fail is because they’re pretending to be something they’re not.” Oprah Winfrey

For me, being authentic in your leadership approach is about having the confidence to show up as you are.  Authentic leadership is not about feeling the pressure to fit and change to suit the environment you are in. It’s about being the very best version of yourself you could possibly imagine. It’s about knowing what you want and being able to articulate that with credibility. It also about an intimate understanding of yourself and being able to use that to build relationships that matter. It is not about blurting out the first thing that comes into your head without consideration to impact.  It’s not about being weak or being taken advantage of either. It is about being comfortable in your skin and using that to positively influence your business and drive success.

The qualities of an Authentic Leader

Bill George, who wrote ‘Authentic Leadership’ back in 2003 captures this as “People of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations … who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values who have the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all their stakeholders,”

He asserts that authentic leaders demonstrate five essential qualities:

  • Understanding their purpose
  • Practising solid values
  • Leading with heart
  • Establishing connected relationships
  • Demonstrating self-discipline

He goes on to note that to be authentic it’s critical that you adopt a flexible approach.  This does not mean leaders need to ‘fit’ the situation, but rather retain their authenticity even when situations and decisions are difficult. An authentic leader must be able to coach and mentor.  To be effective an authentic leader must also be able to terminate people and go against the majority.  In fact, it’s those situations that require authenticity to gain the trust of the people around them.

“No matter the dream, no matter the goal, no matter the level of success you achieve, if your decisions are not aligned with the things in your life that matter very most, your success will be shallow and unfulfilling, to say the least.” 

Self-Awareness & Purpose

I firmly believe that you must first be able to lead yourself before you begin to lead others. Doing this requires acute self-awareness and an innate understanding of the impact we have on those around us. It also involves having clarity of what matters most and a great sense of purpose. To lead authentically means putting all of these things together and using them to guide your thoughts, behaviour and action. This can be easier said than done.  It is often easier to ‘fit’ with the established culture and group norms than it is to take a stand for your own beliefs and values.

“As a leader, presenting your authentic self within an organisation can be a daunting prospect. Exposing publically what you perceive to be your personal values, core beliefs, strengths and weaknesses within a professional, industry and/or workplace culture that supports opposing views can be intimidating and the pressure to conform tempting.”

Giving in to this temptation may avoid awkward conversations and conflict in the short term.  The long-term impact, however, is that we trample on our core values and fall out of alignment with what we believe to be ‘right’. This inevitably, in my opinion, leads to a negative spiral of stress and frustration. It lies at the heart of what has commonly become known as ‘the imposter syndrome’.

Trust is a major factor in employee retention and performance

Truth is at the heart of authentic leadership and by “building trust and generating enthusiastic support from their subordinates, authentic leaders are able to improve individual and team performance. “  A new study by Bupa looking at trust in the workplace has revealed that “over half (53 per cent) of employees considered it to be a major factor in whether they stayed or left a company. The Bupa research found that nearly a quarter of UK employees (24 per cent) have left their company due to issues around trust.”

“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. “

So how do you become more authentic in your leadership?

Here are my thoughts on how you develop this.

Get clarity

Do you know what you want? How often do you make decisions and take action based on what is important to you? It’s not easy to do what serves you best when you lack clarity on your values, what matters and your purpose.  With clarity and curiosity, it’s easier to develop trust, find common ground and resolve conflict. Ever wondered why you get those feelings of anxiety creeping up on you in certain situations? Often it’s because you are walking away rather than toward what is core to who you are.

Step out of self-sabotage

How often do you hold yourself back? Our inner saboteurs have been with us since we were children.  They served the purpose, as we were growing, of keeping us safe from danger. As adults, we no longer need these saboteurs, but they have become ingrained.  They have such a grip it often becomes impossible to hear our voice of inner wisdom. It has become difficult for us to be mindful, to notice what is right for us and to align with purpose. The inner saboteur voice is the one that puts us down, fills us with self-doubt and creates a lack of self-belief.

Align with your purpose

When you know what matters it becomes possible to identify your purpose. For me, this is about having profound clarity on who I am, what I’m doing and where I’m going. A real sense of fulfilment comes from being aligned with purpose.  I like to think of this as having a North Star to guide me: a litmus test to live my life by. It’s common for me to ask myself ‘does this decision align with my purpose’ or ‘what could I do in my current situation that would better align with my purpose’.

Understand the power of choice

In any situation, you have a choice about how you see something. There is also always something to appreciate. How you view the world and how you look at yourself in it can have a significant influence on the personal impact you have on those around you. As a leader, it’s critical to master the power of choice.  What you say yes or no to goes hand in hand with the impact you have on those around you.

Get comfortable with uncomfortable

A senior leader once advised me that growth can sometimes be uncomfortable. Marissa Mayer, was one of the first twenty employees at Google and the youngest woman to be included in Forbes ’50 most powerful women’ list.  In her commencement address at Illinois Institute of Technology, Mayer said: “find the courage to do things you are not ready to do”.

Be resilient

When things go wrong and during change, we can experience self-doubt, stress, frustration and anxiety. When taking on new areas of responsibility or stretch assignments, it’s usual to feel daunted. As leaders, we must be resilient through change and uncertain times.

Develop your emotional intelligence

Unlike IQ which remains relatively flat beyond our formative years, you can increase Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Part of this is to self-manage, understand the environment around you and the influence you have on it.

Commit to action

To be authentic we must not only identify how we show up as our true selves, but we must also take action in alignment with that. How we think influences our behaviour and how we behave influences what we do. How we act ultimately determines our authenticity.

“authentic leaders constitute the vast majority of people chosen today for the key roles in business and nonprofits. Their emergence as the predominant way of leading has resulted from all we have discovered about leadership in the past decade.”

What are you doing to encourage and adopt authentic leadership in yourself, your team and your organisation?  I offer an Authentic Leadership Development Programme and provide half day taster sessions.  Find out more about my Leadership Development Programmes HERE.

Photo credit: photosteve101 on / CC BY






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