What Does It Take To Be An Authentic Leader?

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Authentic Leadership

A while ago I shared a post called Why Is It So Hard To Be Authentic At Work?
I got some interesting comments, many of which lead to the question that inspired this post – what does an authentic leader look like? What does it really take to be authentic?
Here are some random thoughts from my own experience and observations. What do you think it takes?

1. Self Awareness – At the centre of many leadership models and books is the concept of having the ability to clearly know yourself. Developing a healthy sense of self requires commitment and courage to take an honest look in the mirror and understand and accept who you really are, coupled with a desire to grow as a person. This includes developing a high level of understanding of your whole self – your values, skills and knowledge, what makes you “tick”, your best approach to getting things done, your strengths and challenges, and your impact on other people.

It means knowing how to make the most of your own talents and where you need to rely on members of your team. When you build and develop your team with people who are highly capable and provide balance to your strengths you dramatically increase your ability to collaborate and execute as a team.

Self awareness allows you to appreciate and value different approaches and ideas other than your own and use your team and your coach as a sounding board. Developing self awareness is an ongoing journey that involves times of self reflection, regularly seeking feedback and coaching to calibrate your own perspective on your impact and effectiveness. Confidence comes from accepting who you are, knowing your strengths and where you need help. It gives you what people call “presence” which comes from a place of wisdom, grounded in a balanced view of yourself.

2. Integrity – I could probably write an entire book just on this one, but I’ll try to short list it. A study by the Centre for Creative Leadership shows that integrity is the key factor in determining success for executives. As a leader, you demonstrate integrity in a number of ways:

a. You say what you mean and mean what you say. Your word is gold and people trust you. There is no greater power than this. You give credit where it is due and don’t play favorites. People always know where they stand with you. You don’t tolerate politics and value cooperation and collaboration over competition. It astonishes me how many leaders either deliberately or unwittingly play people against each other and set up a culture of competition between colleagues when they will get more done and outperform if they work collaboratively.

b. You communicate in a straightforward, honest fashion, even when the news isn’t good. Many leaders make the mistake of sugar coating bad news to make it more palatable for employees, afraid that it may affect moral or productivity if they tell the truth about bad news. It is never a good idea to lie about bad news that may ultimately affect employees. When employees are told everything is fine or that the company is just hitting a minor “bump” in the road and it turns out to be a boulder, the effect is more devastating than if you had been honest in the first place. Not only have you delivered bad news, but you have also eroded trust. Moral and productivity are worse than if you had been more straightforward. It’s like the reverse of the boy who cried wolf. You have lost credibility and will not be believed when you actually have good news to share. Be open and transparent. Share the real challenges and opportunities and people will follow you anywhere.

c. You are consistent and reliable. This doesn’t mean that you are not responsive to shifting needs or necessary changes. You can adapt your approach and be flexible to changing circumstances and new information while remaining true to your values and larger purpose.

3. Courage – You tackle difficulties and challenges head on, with honesty. You are willing to take the risk to be vulnerable when there is much pressure to conform. You have the internal strength to strive to be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to define you. I’m not talking about the feedback you solicit to help understand your impact on others and how you are perceived. That is helpful information. I’m talking about the sometimes subtle or not so subtle messages we all get that tell us what it means to be successful in life, in our careers, and as a leader, that has more to do with a pressure to conform to a certain mold, to “fit in” at the expense of ourselves and what we value. The irony is, the more you conform to fit in, the less real satisfaction you get from your work and life.

4. Respect – This goes hand in hand with self awareness and integrity. You hire talented people, treat them fairly, and value their contribution. You give them the opportunity to do their best work, let them take risks and explore their ideas. You recognize others for their accomplishments and give them second chances when they make a mistake. A leader who is confident and self aware can express authenticity from a place of self acceptance and acceptance of others, and doesn’t insist that everything is done their way or that people behave like them.

5. Accountability – You take responsibility for your actions and decisions and those of your team. The buck really does stop with you. You follow through on commitments and hold others accountable for the commitments they make. Too often I have seen people in leadership roles point fingers at each other or worse, at their employees when mistakes are made. The bitter comments I’ve heard from people over the years about being “thrown under the bus” is just one indication of a serious lack of accountability in many organizations. The news is full of stories about leaders in the public sector and private industry who have abdicated responsibility. If you want people to trust you and follow you through challenging times, be accountable.

6. Vision – You have a long term view of where you want to take your team and the organization that inspires others to do their best work, even in challenging times. You have the ability to look beyond the immediate day to day/ month/quarter, or year. Rather than short-sighted decisions, you take a longer view of the impact of decisions and can accept short term hits in the interest of longer term value. That value is directly connected to how you and the organization serve the larger community or even the world.

Ultimately, your inner compass guides your daily actions and decisions more than external pressures to conform to someone else’s idea of who you should be and what you should do. This enables you to accomplish great things through others, as you have earned the trust and loyalty of your peers, your employees, and other stakeholders. And that is a powerful leader.

If you are interested in exploring how you can become a more authentic leader, please contact Catherine Meyer

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