Authentic leadership: Why showing up as yourself matters

August 4, 2021 - 21 min read

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What is authentic leadership, really?

Why is authentic leadership so important?

Authentic leadership characteristics

How to develop an authentic leadership style

Authentic leadership motivates others

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde

Think back to the leaders who have most inspired you. What were the qualities that made them so inspiring? It’s quite likely that authenticity is high up on that list.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines authenticity as:

“The quality of being real or true.”

So what exactly is authentic leadership? Does it just mean being yourself? What if you’re an arrogant bulldozer — is authentic leadership just a way to justify your lack of sensitivity?

This article will define authentic leadership, why it can be so motivating, and how to develop these leadership characteristics.

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What is authentic leadership, really?

Let’s back up for a second. Authentic leadership isn’t a new concept.

It’s been floating around since the 1960s but jumped into the limelight in 2003 when Bill George published his book Authentic Leadership.

Despite its stately age, authentic leadership as a leadership style is still in its theological adolescence. Researchers are beginning to converge on points of agreement. But there are still different definitions floating around. So, if you are a bit confused, you are in good company — even the scientists aren’t in agreement!

A widely quoted authentic leadership definition describes it as follows:

“Authentic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on transparent and ethical leader behavior and encourages open sharing of information needed to make decisions while accepting followers’ inputs.”  

The experts seem to agree that authentic leadership is about being you and making room for others, too. It includes a healthy dose of common sense and some ethics thrown in for good measure.

So, unfortunately for some, the arrogant bulldozer approach doesn’t quite cut the authentic-leadership mustard.

Why is authentic leadership so important?

Most people don’t enjoy having the wool pulled over their eyes.

In fact, we dislike it so much that our brains expend a fair bit of energy trolling through millions of bytes of data, mostly unconsciously. Our brains are analyzing it for inconsistencies

Inconsistency could be something as slight as a micro-expression (your eyes don’t smile when your mouth does). Or it could be major (she said she was going to do x, but did y instead without explanation).

When an inconsistency pops up, a cascade of physiological and psychological processes unfold. Most interpret this as the flashing red light on the dashboard of our consciousness labeled ‘suspicion.’

Why is this problematic?

First and foremost, it distracts your amazingly talented employees from doing what they do best — their work.

Suddenly, their brains are kicked into overdrive. They begin coming up with theories about the inconsistency they have observed.

Due to a negativity bias, we make up negative stories in the absence of reliable information. We are more likely to assume the worst possible outcome and ruminate.

That means that your employees probably won’t be using their precious mental attention productively. They will be busy making up negative stories about you instead.

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The second reason authentic leadership is in such high demand is that people are tired of air-brushed leaders sitting on their high horses.

Leading from a distance is yesterday’s game. Today’s workers are inspired by real people who are honest, brave, and willing to roll up their sleeves and climb into the trenches.

People want leaders they can connect with who understand them. They seek leaders they can relate to. In other words, we want leaders who are like us but a little further down the path.

If you want to fully harness the power of your team, you have to offer more than just a paycheck. You have to tap into their intrinsic motivation and inspire them as human beings first.

Authentic leadership is a bridge to an inspired and motivated team.

Authentic leadership characteristics

Key characteristics of an authentic leader include:

Self-awareness

Truly transformational leaders have a well-developed understanding of who they are.

They know their strengths, their weaknesses, and the limitations of their abilities.

They are often high in emotional intelligence, a leadership skill that is often key to becoming a successful leader.

An effective leader is also self-aware in that they notice. They react to how others perceive their words and actions.

Great listening skills

A good leader is able to offer solid advice. But a better leader develops trust in a relationship by actively listening to what his peers and subordinates are saying. A better leader seeks to understand others’ points of view from their moral perspective.

When a great leader has well-developed listening skills, they are able to properly interpret the needs of their team and customers.

They also make decisions that reflect their personal values and provide lasting value by improving the job satisfaction of those around them.

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(Image Source)

Emotional control

Everyone has emotions. That includes anyone in a leadership role.

But what really demonstrates a leader’s authenticity is the ability to not let their emotions get in the way of fulfilling their role as a leader.

An authentic transformational leader can deliver honest feedback without letting their personal dissatisfaction cloud their judgment and actions.

Relationship-driven

Of course, the majority of leaders are part of an organization that has financial goals. It’s often the case that a large part of their role is leading the company to achieve those goals.

However, a leader who really exhibits an authentic leadership style puts as much energy into relating to the life experiences of those around them as they do toward hitting those goals.

Transformational leadership values relationships at least as much as results. 

Accountability

Pretty much everyone can look back on their life story and identify areas where they’ve made mistakes. Leaders are not exempt from making mistakes.

Unfortunately, not all leaders are highly adept at taking responsibility for these mistakes.

It is a leader with a strong internalized moral perspective who is uncompromisingly accountable for their shortcomings.

Empathy

Part of what makes an authentic leader is that they are hugely empathetic. This often ties in with a certain relational transparency.

Others are able to see that the leader is putting forward their authentic self through their interactions with those around them.

An empathetic leader understands that their employees are human and have both negative and positive forms. As a result, they seek to understand the motivations and reasons behind less than satisfactory results of actions from their team. They don’t immediately jump to reprimand.

Humility

A great leader exhibits authentic behavior by getting their ego out of the way. They act in a way that betters the entire organization, not just themselves.

Long-term goals

An authentic leader has long-term team goals relevant to their ethical foundation. They are honest about potential obstacles and recognize the importance of acknowledging these challenges to overcome them.

Some of these goals will be related to organizational success, but most leaders have wider goals outside of their specific role.

An authentic leader shares those goals with others and allows them to engage in the pursuit of them.

Internal code of ethics

For a leader to display any kind of ethical behavior, they need to have a positive internal code of ethics that is resistant to external pressures.

Otherwise, such behaviors become inconsistent, which others can perceive as inauthentic.

How to develop an authentic leadership style

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The great news is that your leadership style isn’t fixed. It is absolutely possible to develop an authentic leadership approach.

At the heart of this practice is self-awareness. Engaging in some form of self-reflection will take you a long way. It enables you to acknowledge your interests and goals, recognize how they align with those of your team members, and understand why they matter.

Working with a coach can massively accelerate this learning process. If you don’t have access to a coach, here are some suggestions for getting started on your own.

1. Explore your values

Every decision you have ever made and every disagreement you’ve ever had comes down to your values and the prioritization you place on those values. Yet, surprisingly, few people can actually clearly articulate what their core values are.

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(Image Source)

To get started:

  • Find a list of values online. Sit down and circle the ones that resonate with you.
  • You might be tempted to create a list of ‘personal’ values and a different list of ‘professional’ values. Don’t! If it’s really a core value, it will be as true at home as it is at work (you are, after all, the same person in both places).
  • Narrow it down to your top 10, then rank them in order. If you are having trouble deciding between two values, it can be helpful to ask yourself, ‘Could I live without this?’
  • Finally, give each of your values a rating out of 10 in terms of how fulfilled it is in your life right now.

This will give you greater self-awareness. It will also help you make value-based decisions and make you more aware of what drives and motivates others.

2. Journal 

If you want to learn what makes you tick, you have to spend some time observing yourself and learning from your observations.

Become a scientist for yourself. Recording and analyzing your observations can help you learn in the moment. It also gives the added benefit of helping you identify larger themes and cycles in your life.

3. Solicit feedback

Actively solicit feedback on an ongoing basis. Start today by messaging 20 people in your life (at work and at home) and ask them to send you three words that describe you.

The problem with feedback is that sometimes you hear things that you don’t want to hear. This is where the journal comes in handy. Make a note of feelings that arise (good/bad or otherwise).

Do some deep thinking on this. Why did the feedback trigger these feelings? Is there some truth in the feedback? If not, you responded strongly, so one of your values was violated. Which one was it?

4. Practice brutal honesty with yourself and gentle honesty with others

Authenticity requires your thoughts, words, and actions to be in alignment.

That alignment occurs when you are honest with yourself about the trade-offs you are making and why you are making them. .

That doesn’t mean you will always reach a perfect agreement between the different factions of your own mind. But it does mean you will carefully consider every option and its outcomes before making final decisions.

When deciding whether to give feedback to others, take an honest (judgment-free) look at your intentions first. If the feedback isn’t going to be constructive, stay silent until you are ready to give it in a way that is.

5. Develop your listening skills

Authentic leaders have black belts in listening.

The first step in developing this skill is to simply keep your mouth closed when someone else is speaking. It seems obvious, but it’s not always easy to do. You learn more when others speak than when you speak yourself..

Use  listening time as an opportunity to practice mindfulness and be fully present rather than a time to think of what you are going to say next. In this way, listening drives understanding, empathy, and trust between managers and team members.  

6. Share personal stories

Sharing personal stories can be a powerful way to authentically inspire your team.

An authentic leader uses stories to comfort, inspire, and motivate. The key is to use common sense and not overdo it.

A leader sharing a personal story of triumph in a moment where the team is struggling can be inspirational. A leader sharing a personal story at every team meeting that other members cannot relate to or have a personal stake in might be perceived as narcissistic.

Remember that authentic leaders are themselves, and they make room for others.

7. Write your own code of ethics

As an authentic leader, what are you committing to? What are your non-negotiables? What lines won’t you cross, even if it costs you your job?

Invest some time and actually write this down. For some additional tips on writing your own code of ethics, see here.

Once you have it in writing, make it real by reading it to a friend or colleague.

8. Create a leadership learning plan

Authentic leadership isn’t a destination — it’s a way of being.

The best leaders are continuously and consciously growing. Create a leadership learning plan for yourself and review it frequently.

What resources do you have available that could support your continued growth as an authentic leader?

9. Be open to suggestions

Authentic leaders give fair consideration to differing viewpoints.

Pause and make a point of asking at least three questions to more fully understand team members’ perspectives before making a judgment.

When team members make suggestions that don’t align with your current perspective, seek to understand the reasons behind these misalignments. Consider what they mean, why they’re occurring, and why they matter.

It’s equally important to focus on what all of your team members have in common: a unified mission, vision, and values. By focusing on the factors that unify team members, misalignments can be more easily addressed and overcome to create stronger, more collaborative solutions.

Authentic leadership motivates others

Authentic leadership offers a path towards inspired and motivated individuals, teams, and organizations.

Traditional organizational structures are being challenged. Top talent is seeking work that is both meaningful and impactful. Authentic leadership offers an edge that can’t be ignored.

At BetterUp, we help coach individuals to become the best versions of themselves.

If you want to develop your authentic leadership style, consider signing up for a free trial to see how we can help you.

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Published August 4, 2021

Kelly Labrecque

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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