Many years ago I was working as a consultant with an organization and there was this person who held a leadership role. They had been at the organization for well over a decade and lead a team of over 80 professionals. During my interactions in the workplace with them I saw them being a really good leader and saying very supportive things to their team, and giving the impression that they really trusted and believed in their team.
By chance I bumped into this person in a social setting, and they seemed quite happy to tell me how much they didn’t trust their team members, didn’t like them personally and didn’t think they deserved respect. I questioned why this particular attitude was so different from the one that I saw in the workplace and I was told that I shouldn’t worry about it because this person had been on all the leadership courses and had learned what to say and what to do to be a great leader.
This was quite some time ago and relatively early in my career, and what struck me was the assertion that leadership was simply something that you could learn and pretend to do. I didn’t think too much more of it until about a year later when this person was leaving to go work for another organization and they invited me along to the function at their work to say goodbye to them. What surprised me at this leaving function was that out of the team of 80 people that they led, only about 15 people turned up. You could also sense that even these people didn’t want to be there, and it was at that moment that I realized that they knew either consciously, or subconsciously, that this person wasn’t an authentic leader. This person then went on to a much more senior role in a much larger organization but their career was cut short when their particular inauthentic leadership style was discovered, and they were relieved of their position.
This whole experience got me thinking about authentic leadership and the need to be true to yourself. There are many models of leadership and most of them focus on the competencies of leadership, and when and where these competencies should be displayed. I believe that each of these models is probably true in the right situation (as leadership is situational), but as I studied leadership more and more it became apparent that what was missing from most of these leadership models was the requirement that the leader be authentic. Without authenticity it is possible to mimic, pretend and fake what it takes to be a leader.
So how do you become an authentic leader?
Becoming a truly authentic leader begins with knowing your strengths and your values, and having a sense of integrity, which means sticking with your values even in tough times. If you have a strong set of values, integrity and you are an authentic person you will give yourself a strong personal foundation which is absolutely necessary to be a great leader. Without a strong personal foundation the dark narcissistic side of leadership can take over as leadership[gives you access to power and as we all know that power can corrupt, particular those people without a strong authentic personal foundation.
Being an authentic leader will also give you a much greater, deeper, and more genuine connection with the people who choose to follow you. It also means that you can actually be your natural self, and this takes a lot less energy than pretending to be something or someone that you are not.
So where do you start?
- Start by defining your values and labeling each one depending on how flexible it is. Once you defined your values stick with them. Leaders are supposed to stand up for their beliefs, so they’d better have some beliefs to stand up for. Be aware of situations that will ask you to bend or break your values and be prepared to stand up for them even if it means short term loss.
- Find out your particular strength as a leader and really focus on leveraging these. Put yourself in leadership situations that thrive on your particular set of strengths. Take the free VIA Character Strengths assessment as a useful starting point.
- Respect your followers. Be brave enough to ask your followers under which conditions they will withdraw their consent to be lead. Draw on your own experience as a follower as to the type of leadership that you truly flourish in. Be brave enough to ask your followers about how your leadership style is going.
- Commit to your ongoing development as a leader. Leadership is about growth of you professionally and personally and to meet this challenge of growth you need to commit to your own ongoing development.
Whatever situations you find yourself in life, whether they be professional or personal, you will find opportunities to be a leader and being an authentic leader means that you will be a better leader. My challenge to you is to commit to this authenticity and I would love to hear about your successes and the challenges you have overcome in your own leadership journey.