Do you know someone at work who comes across as a fake? One of the worst mistakes you can make as a leader is trying to be something you’re not. Any positive results are almost certainly short-lived. And when it’s carried to an extreme, you can become a destination leader who is focused on someone else’s destination.
Authentic leadership is a powerful – and increasingly more common – style of leadership built on the idea of being who you are, and then striving to become the best you can be.
But how do you bring your best – and whole – self to work? Let’s take a closer look at what makes someone an authentic leader and how you can cultivate greater authenticity in your daily leadership style.
Qualities of Authentic Leaders
When you think about what makes an authentic leader, what qualities come to mind?
Transparency, Great listening skills, Self-awareness, perhaps?
Authentic leadership can be defined in many ways, and it is a style of leadership that has been studied for a number of years. It was first introduced in the 1960s as management theorists were thinking about what makes an authentic company. Then in the early 2000s, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, wrote two books on the subject: Authentic Leadership and Discover Your True North.
In his first book Authentic Leadership, Bill George defined the concept as leaders who had the ability to incorporate certain characteristics into their leadership style:
- Purpose– Authentic leaders have a deep sense of purpose for their leadership, they really search to understand their focus and what they can uniquely contribute
- Values – They are true to their core values, they know what they believe in and live up to that consistently in all they say and do
- Head/heart– Authentic leaders lead with their hearts as well as their heads, they are willing to show some emotion and empathy
- Relational – They invest in others over time, they are loyal and patient with people, and they strive to do what is right and best for others not just for themselves
- Self-disciplined, focused on getting results– Authentic leaders work hard and help others stay focused on the most important goals that must be accomplished
As you look at George’s list, how does it sound to you? I like it, but I also wondered: Does this mean every authentic leader has to be the same?
No, definitely not. That would be the opposite of what being “authentic” means. There are all kinds of leaders, each person has their own style and voice. So we can each strive to attain these qualities George outlines, but we don’t have to exhibit them in the same way.
For example, you may be very passionate and demonstrative in sharing your purpose while others will show this through dedication and hard work.
We all have many different values as leaders. Or we may have a unique sense of purpose for our leadership that is unlike other leaders. That’s good, and again, really illustrates that we can – and should— bring our uniqueness into our leadership.
What can you do to be a more authentic leader?
Authentic Leadership Toolkit
Interestingly, George’s second book True North, considered this question of whether there is a cookie-cutter mold for authentic leadership. He and his team interviewed 125 leaders between the ages of 23 and 93 to find out how they were becoming authentic leaders.
While many of them were very different, there were some similar things they did to be uniquely themselves.
Based on their study findings and a few of my own thoughts on authentic leadership, here are a few tools and tips on how you can bring your most authentic self forward in your leadership journey.
- What’s your story?
You can use your own unique life experiences to inform your style. Your childhood or perhaps a defining event that has shaped who you are today. What if you were applying for a promotion at work and I asked you to tell me about something that happened to you that helped define who you are today – what would you tell me?
It’s important to have a way to share your life story and to have clarity yourself about who you are today because of it.
- Define your values
Use your personal values to guide your actions and decisions. Have you ever written down your values? Most people have four or five words that really capture what they believe in.
I encourage you to go through that process if you haven’t already. Find some think time to reflect on this over the next several days, if you can, and jot down a few words.
When you put all the words together, does that capture the essence of what means the most to you? I think you’ll find this to be a really powerful experience to help define your authenticity as a leader.
- Listen to your inner voice
It’s critical that you learn to listen for and to your own voice rather just the opinions of others to guide your leadership path. Authentic leaders have a strong internal drive and clarity that can be louder than the voice of others.
I have a friend who was being marginalized at work due to a merger; she decided to do something about it. She became board chair of a major non-profit with some high-profile aspects of it. She also applied for and was accepted into a fellowship program that gave her exposure to other community and business leaders.
These things helped change how she felt about herself and helped her take back her future, regain some control over her own development as a leader. Eventually, this move led her to a very prestigious job as a CFO in a prominent organization.
- Keep both feet on the ground
Leaders who lose touch with reality and stop listening to honest feedback from others struggle to remain authentic. Instead, you should rely on your trusted advisors, family and friends to help you stay grounded. Let them help you maintain a sense of humility.
They can also help you find some balance between your personal and professional life. Sometimes you lean into family, sometimes into work. Each will let you know when they need you. We should give each other permission to respond in order to keep both parts of our life nurtured and growing.
- Live a full life
You also need to find time for you – to have a hobby or personal interest, to find a way to maintain your physical, mental and spiritual health. Engaging in the things you love allows you to stay in touch with your true self. Finding joy in our personal passions is essential if you’re going to make it all the way on this leadership journey without burning out.
Becoming an authentic leader may require a change on your part, plus some time and effort. But having a learner’s mindset is the key. When you’re willing to learn as you go, you will continue to grow and become the best you can be.