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The nuts and bolts of authentic leadership

“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” - Oscar Wilde

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Why is authentic leadership so important?

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

How to develop authentic leadership

Wrapping up

What is ‘authentic leadership,’ really?

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?

Let’s back up for a second, because 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. Even though researchers are beginning to converge on points of agreement, 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 definition by Avolio et al defines 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” 1. 

The experts seem to agree that authentic leadership is about being you and making room for others, too — with 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?

When was the last time you were bull-shitted? How did it make you feel? 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) analyzing it for inconsistencies 2. 

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, 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. That means your employees will be busy making up negative stories about you instead of using that precious mental attention productively.

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 inspire them as human beings first. 

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

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What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

Key characteristics of an authentic leader include:

  • They’re self-aware.
  • They’re extraordinary listeners and give fair consideration to the views of others.
  • They openly share their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, while minimizing inappropriate emotions.
  • They value people and relationships at least as much as results.
  • They take ownership of their mistakes.
  • They’re empathic and highly influential due to the genuine relationships they build.
  • They get their ego out of the way.
  • They lead with their hearts, not with just their minds.
  • They have long-term team goals and are honest about potential obstacles.
  • They have a positive internal code of ethics that is resistant to external pressures.

How to develop authentic leadership

The great news is that your leadership style isn’t fixed and 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. 

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. Values exploration

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.

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.

Not only will this give you greater self-awareness and help you make values-based decisions, it will also make you more aware of what drives and motivates others.

2. Journaling 

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 on 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. 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. 

For that alignment to happen, you have to stop lying to yourself. That doesn’t mean you will always reach a perfect agreement between the different factions of your own mind, but be honest with yourself about the trade-offs you are making and why you are making them. 

Make a promise to never lie to yourself again!

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 not always easy to do. You learn more when others speak than when you speak yourself — so quit interrupting and let people finish their sentences.

Instead of using listening time as an opportunity to think of what you are going to say next, use conversations as an opportunity to squeeze in mindfulness practice and be fully present while listening.

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 don’t 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 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 

An authentic leader gives fair consideration to differing viewpoints. 

When team members make suggestions that don’t align with your current perspective, don’t discard these suggestions out of hand. 

Pause and make a point of asking at least three questions to more fully understand their perspective before making a judgment.

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Wrapping up

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

In a market where traditional organizational structures are being challenged and top talent is seeking work that is both meaningful and impactful, authentic leadership offers an edge that can’t be ignored.

References:

  1. Bruce Avolio, Fred Walumbwa & Todd Weber, (2009). ‘Leadership: Current Theories, Research and Future Directions’ in Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 60
  2. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authentic_leadership#cite_note-GardnerCogliser2011-1