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Authentic Leadership: Being Yourself, but with More Skill

Authentic Leadership

Authentic LeadershipAuthenticity has been a recurring theme in philosophy for a long as there have been philosophers. So, it was inevitable that leadership thinkers would pick up on the idea, to give us Authentic Leadership.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that it took until 2003 for this Big Idea to emerge. But, emerge it did, from US business-person and later academic, Bill George.

His book, ‘Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value‘ tried to re-set the needle on leadership styles following the failures of the dot.com boom and scandals like the Enron collapse. He followed it in 2008 by the even more successful ‘Discover Your True North: Becoming an Authentic Leader‘.

In an earlier article, we looked at the broader topic of authenticity. Here, we return to it, but with a focus on its role in leadership.

Why do We Need Authentic Leadership?

As always, one man said it best about authenticity:

This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This was the advice of Polonius to his son Laertes in Hamlet. Do I need to say more than Shakespeare?

Okay, I will. I’ll add that, too often, Leadership can be a mask, a veneer, or an act that leaders adopt. They behave as they feel leaders ought to behave, rather than as themselves. This can lead to visionary, charismatic leaders who quite simply fail. Followers at some point see through the veil to the person underneath.

Maybe it’s not that they don’t like what’s truly there. More likely, it’s the deception they despise.

What is Authentic Leadership?

Authentic leadership is an approach to management and leadership that does away with the act. Leaders allow themselves to be genuine, and transparent. It’s their true self that they allow to be on show.

Self Awareness

To do this, an authentic leader must have a high level of self-awareness.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν
Which translates as Know Thyself

This ancient Greek wisdom has been attributed to many Greek thinkers – most notably Socrates. Its origin is lost in time, but its value lives on. And, in authentic leadership, the leader must respect their own limitations, rather than plaster over them with deceit and bluff.

A leader who can do this is likely to inspire loyalty and trust in their staff.  By displaying who they really are, as a person, and how they feel about their team’s performance, people can relate to them and see their leadership as legitimate. It turns out that authentic leadership is a strong predictor of employee motivation and job satisfaction.

Maintaining Authenticity

It’s no good ‘turning on’ the authenticity when you need it. That just becomes another sham. True authentic leadership is constant. And so must be the integrity and behaviours it requires. You must always be prepared to own up to your mistakes and shortcomings, and be courageous in your decisions.

The Aspects of Authentic Leadership

Different authors focus on different components of authentic leadership.  Here are the aspects that I think are the most important, in understanding how to build your own authentic leadership style. Notice that these don’t tell you what to do. Rather, they aim to guide you in making your choices.

I’ll start with the fundamental component:

Self Awareness – of course

… and being true to yourself. More than that, you need to be prepared to put yourself on show and let your followers see who you really are.

I am very attracted to the phrase that Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones use in their excellent book ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?‘ It’s my favourite book on authentic leadership…

Be yourself – more – with skill

We profiled Goffee and Jones and their thinking in our Management Thinkers series.

Other aspects of Authentic Leadership

  1. How you use your Power
    Here, I’m referring to the different types of power we have in the workplace; our ‘Power Bases’. It’s easy to pull rank with hierarchical power, or aim to bribe or coerce. But an authentic leader will only aim to use their true personal power to influence others. That is, the power that derives from their character, experience, style, and authenticity.
  2. Transparent and Honest Relationships
    Authentic leaders must cultivate excellent communication skills, to get their message across. But they must use those skills in an open and honest way. If you lie, deceive, or manipulate the people around you, it will come back to haunt you later.
  3. Showing your Emotions
    Transparency also means letting people see how you really feel. I don’t mean wearing your heart on your sleeve. And neither is this license to get angry and abusive, with the excuse that ‘this is just who I am’. But people need to know that you care – and what, precisely, you care about. Some authors refer to this as leading with or from the heart.
  4. Balanced Decision-making
    This is less about the decisions you make and more about how you make them. It’s about avoiding foolish binary choices and allowing yourself to consider the subtleties of complex and ambiguous situations. Let others contribute to your decision process. And always aim to make decisions that are fair and just. Finally, in the spirit of transparency, be as open as the situation allow, about what you have decided, and how you made your decision.
  5. Sustainable Leadership
    In the current environment, a lot of commentators are also focusing on the need for a long-term perspective. Your choices need to be weighted towards sustainable outcomes and the long-term needs of your community, rather than by short-term expediency.
  6. The Bigger Picture
    Alongside the long-term view is the wider view. You need to know what matters and be led by those values in your day-to-day actions. This often means putting people first, ahead of rules and policies. But the organization’s long-term future is also important, so there must be limits on the rules and policies you are prepared to challenge. Authentic leadership is a delicate balancing act.
  7. Ethics and Integrity
    Let’s end with the most important thing. You absolutely need the moral compass to know and do what is right.

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it.

‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.

What is Your experience of Authentic Leadership?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

The Leadership Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools for leaders at all levels – strategic, organisational, and team-level – on how to inspire, influence, deal with change, and achieve objectives.

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