Yes, People Still Want Authentic Leadership
The term authentic leadership is bandied about almost continuously in leadership development circles. If we consider the opposite – inauthentic leadership – then cultivating authenticity in those who control our fate seems like a very smart move. Yet even if we agree with the concept, there’s considerable hand wringing around what authenticity actually looks like in the workplace, and how that lines up with other sought-after traits like equanimity and self-control.
Is authenticity as easy as being yourself? But what if your true self isn’t always so leader-like? Can one be too authentic?
Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, and former CEO of Medtronic, says that authentic leadership is about embracing who you really are. His thesis is this: “Just be yourself. You can’t be something [else]. If you’re a tulip, be a tulip. If you’re a rose, and you’ve got some [thorns], it’s okay. You can produce beautiful buds. But you’ve got to be who you are. And then bloom from that position.”
George is often credited with starting the authentic leadership movement, and offers some wise counsel on how to concretely become the kind of person others want to follow. Here are five suggestions.
Develop your self-awareness.
In an extensive leadership development study of 125 leaders, George and his colleagues found that leaders unanimously considered self-awareness to be the most important skill for leaders, young and old, to develop:
“…many leaders, especially those early in their careers, are trying so hard to establish themselves in the world that they leave little time for self-exploration. They strive to achieve success in tangible ways that are recognized in the external world—money, fame, power, status, or a rising stock price. Often their drive enables them to be professionally successful for a while, but they are unable to sustain that success. As they age, they may find something is missing in their lives and realize they are holding back from being the person they want to be.”
The bottom line is that there’s more to success than what happens at work so take time to know yourself. Devote time each day to reflection. Think about how your actions align with the person you want to be. Listen when feedback is offered to you, and use it to grow.
Translate your values into action.
Authentic leaders rarely stray from their moral compass, and they ingrain those values in their places of work. For example, if you believe that everyone should be treated with fairness, then convert that into action: create a work environment that promotes mutual respect.
Before you can enact your values, you have to be clear about what’s most important to you and what’s nonnegotiable. A values exercise can be helpful – here’s a free interactive one from The Good Project.
Balance your desire for external validation with your intrinsic motivation.
When a leader’s actions don’t reflect their whole person, this can breed a stewing discontent, burnout, and frustration. Those around the leader can feel it. And we want to work for people who are content and balanced with their lives.
Figuring out where you stand requires a hard look at whether your external and internal motivations are getting equal effort. Are you primarily concerned with acquiring a powerful job title or receiving validation? Do you have a clear idea of what truly matters to you and what you want to achieve in your life?
Take some time to think about what ultimately provides you with a sense of fulfillment and meaning. What are you truly passionate about? Being an authentic leader means chasing your intrinsic motivations as much as (if not more than) the things that provide external validation.
Build strong, healthy relationships.
To be a strong leader, you need strong people around you: your spouse, your mentor, your friends, and your colleagues. Consider these individuals to be your support team who can provide guidance when you need outside opinions. They also make sure you keep it real, no matter how high up you go.
Support teams don’t just happen. Building them requires devoting yourself to these relationships – and making choices. Invest the time, energy, and work into the relationships that matter to you, and into cultivating new ones on a regular basis.
Always be you, whether you’re at a meeting, having dinner with your family, or hanging out with your best friend.
Researchers in the authentic leadership study perhaps put it best: “Think of your life as a house, with a bedroom for your personal life, a study for your professional life, a family room for your family, and a living room to share with your friends. Can you knock down the walls between these rooms and be the same person in each of them?”
It’s too hard to spend life putting on different masks. Give yourself the gift of only needing to be one person: you. While the content of your discussions may change, the person giving them is, at the core, always the same.
This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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