In Search of Authentic Leaders

  • 5 mins read

Employees at all organizational levels seek meaning and fulfillment at work. Most are willing to work hard for authentic, trustworthy leaders.
Sadly, employee morale is at an all-time low. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work and psychologically committed to their jobs.
People are not easily fooled or quick to offer their loyalty, which explains why inauthentic leaders struggle to hire and retain exceptional staffers.
Authentic leaders have mastered three key skills: clear vision, formulating sound strategies and finding approaches that inspire others to act. To join this elite club, you must align people around a common purpose and set of values. As they perform at peak levels, they’ll know precisely what’s expected of them.
Three Problems with Authenticity
While virtually every leader has a sense of what “authenticity” means, few know how to develop it as a skill. To complicate matters, being authentic in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace has its share of challenges.
A too-rigid view of oneself can be an obstacle to leading effectively. Three common leadership pitfalls include:

  1. 1. Being true to yourself. Which self? Depending on your role and the context, you show up differently. You grow and shift with experience and evolve into new roles. How can you be authentic to a future self that is uncertain and unformed?
  2. 2. Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. You lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you’re unproven.
  3. 3. Making values-based decisions. When you move into a bigger role, values shaped by past experiences can misguide you. In the face of new challenges, old decisions may produce authentic, but wrong, behaviors that fail to suit new situations.

Frame Your Life Stories
The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding your life story, which provides a context for your experiences. Your story is powered by experiences that can help you inspire others and influence them to follow your lead.
That said, life stories are not always pretty. While most of us can reframe negative experiences in a positive light, authenticity requires us to face up to our mistakes and failures. An honest appraisal may prove uncomfortable, but it’s necessary for self-improvement. It also paves the way for authenticity and resilience.
Practice Your Values and Principles
The values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from your beliefs and convictions, but you cannot truly know them until they’re tested under pressure.
Leadership principles are values translated into action. Without action that supports your stated values, you cannot be authentic. The hard decisions you make reflect what you truly value.
Balance Your Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations
If you’re like most leaders, you may be reluctant to admit that you measure your success against the outside world’s parameters. You enjoy the recognition and status that come with promotions and financial rewards.
But intrinsic motivations are derived from your life’s meaning and purpose. They’re closely linked to your life story and how you frame it (i.e., personal growth, helping other people develop, social causes, making a difference in the world).
Authenticity requires you to balance your desire for external validation with the intrinsic motivations that provide fulfillment at work.
Build Your Support Team
Authentic leaders build extraordinary support teams to help them stay on course. Team members provide counsel in times of uncertainty, offer extra assistance in difficult times and share in celebrations of success.
Support teams consist of spouses and families, close friends and colleagues, and mentors and coaches. Leaders must give as much to their supporters as they receive from them. Only then can mutually beneficial relationships develop.
Develop as an Authentic Leader
In “Your Development as an Authentic Leader” (Harvard Business Review, February 2007), Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean and Diana Mayer urge leaders to ask themselves the following questions:
1. Which people and experiences in your early life had the greatest impact on you?

2. Which tools do you use to become self-aware?
What is your authentic self?
In which moments do you say to yourself, “This is the real me?”
3. Name your most deeply held values.
Where did they come from?
Have your values changed significantly since your childhood?
How do your values inform your actions?
4. What motivates you extrinsically?
What are your intrinsic motivations?
How do you balance extrinsic and intrinsic motivations?
5. What kind of support team do you have?
How can your support team make you a more authentic leader?
How should you diversify your team to broaden your perspective?
6. Is your life integrated?
Are you able to be the same person in all aspects of your life (personal, work, family and community)?
If not, what’s holding you back?
7. What does authenticity mean in your life?
Are you a more effective leader when you behave authentically?
Have you ever paid a price for your authenticity? Was it worth it?
8. What steps can you take today, tomorrow and over the next year to develop authentic leadership?
Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts and heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are.
Ultimately, superior results over a sustained period make for an authentic leader. It may be possible to drive short-term outcomes without being authentic, but authentic leadership is the only way we know to create sustainable long-term results.

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