Authentic Leadership

I’ve been thinking about authenticity lately. In particular, what does it mean (to me) to be an “authentic leader.” I’m just taking this opportunity to sketch out a few of my (admittedly not particularly coherent) thoughts in this area. 

First, a key caveat: This post is not about helping you become a good leader. That is a BIG topic! Authenticity is certainly a vital characteristic of an effective leader, but there is so much more. Even defining what “effective” is, can be a treatise of itself. 

I want to start by defining what I mean by “authentic”. If we don’t agree on the definition, then we could easily be talking about different things. Which would be a waste of both our time. I define Authentic as a combination of the following characteristics:

Honesty: Telling the truth is obviously a key part of being Authentic.  It is hard to imagine being an effective leader long-term, if the people around you do not believe you are telling them the truth.

·        Predictability: Perhaps more important than being considered truthful and believable, an effective leader is one whose decision making is predictable. If a leader explodes at the bearer of bad news one time, but another time, takes it in stride, the team will never know what to expect, and will spend more time worrying about “managing up”, than doing their jobs.

·        Accountability: To be Authentic, you need to be held to your own standards (see Predictability.) And, if you make mistakes, you should be open about them. A good leader demonstrates that it is not mistakes that define our performance, but how we learn from them. In order to show this, the team needs to see that we own up to our mistakes — and take action to avoid them in the future. I tend to view Accountability as the same as Brene Brown’s “vulnerability”. However, many folks equate vulnerability with the antonym of strength (which is not really true), so I choose to use Accountability instead.

·        Trustworthiness: This is really the result of demonstrating all the above characteristics, rather than a root cause of itself. If you tell the truth, are consistent in your leadership, and own your mistakes, then your team will naturally learn to trust you.

The presence of these characteristics is the difference between being a “boss” and being an authentic leader. A boss simply has authority, but an authentic leader has the huge advantage of being trusted. This allows them, in turn, to trust their employees, to do their best. People react positively to this sort of leadership —- being thus empowered makes them more engaged in the company’s success, and in their individual jobs. The authentic leader need not spend a lot of energy on making sure the work is done, and instead, can focus on the strategic needs of the company.

Throughout my career, I have found that it is SO much easier to lead, if I’m authentic. I don’t have to stress nearly as much about being perfect in my leadership. My team sees me as part of their team, so, just as I don’t beat them up for making an honest mistake, they give me a break as well. And the trust they have in my leadership, allows me to lead without having to spend so much energy “pulling” them along. Plus, it is incredibly more satisfying to lead this way!