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Congratulations on your promotion!
You are now the leader of a team (or department. Or, even the whole company).
You’ve got a fantastic new office (with a window!) and some snazzy new business cards.
Maybe you even have an expense account.
These are all fabulous things.
But, have you thought about what kind of leader you’re going to be?
Oh, you didn’t realize that was a thing?
Or, maybe you realized it was a thing, but are only just now realizing you have to actually do something.
While you could wing it (I know I have), that’s maybe not the best way to lead. You could decide to do the exact opposite of all those “bad bosses” you’ve had in the past (because you know you can do it better), but does that make you a “good boss?”
Perhaps you’ve heard someone mention authentic leadership and you like the way that sounds.
I mean authentic is good.
It means real and genuine.
And everyone likes someone who’s authentic.
Or, at least, everyone is supposed to be authentic.
As in: real.
And leadership is, well, leading.
Being in charge.
That’s what this promotion is all about: being in charge.
Hmm. Maybe this isn’t as simple as it seems.
Being authentic and being a leader makes sense.
But what does it mean to be an authentic leader?
And, how can you become one, without totally messing it up?
UNDERSTANDING AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP IS VITAL
The word “authentic” has several definitions.
Check it out:
One is that authentic means we should believe something because it’s based on fact.
That’s not all: Another definition is something is authentic when it’s the original and not a copy. OK. Interesting.
There’s also a third definition:
Authentic means being true to yourself, as in your personality, your character, and your spirit.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
“Leadership” also has some interesting definitions. They are the position of leader, the ability to lead, and the act of leading.
So, if we put it all together, authentic leadership is someone who is true to themselves and has the ability to lead. Or, an authentic leader is someone who is original and is leading right this second.
Those are um, pretty vague.
And that’s the problem:
Authentic leadership as a concept is vague.
If I believe I am always true to myself and my spirit, and this belief is based on fact, then I must be authentic. And, if I’m your boss, obviously I can “do” leadership.
Therefore I must be an authentic leader.
While there are many definitions for “authentic” and “leadership,” authentic leadership lays a foundation to help those in leadership positions grow as leaders.
It’s more than just a style of managing, or even a management theory or philosophy.
Authentic leadership is a framework that helps leaders maintain their integrity without betraying their company.
THE BEGINNINGS OF AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP
Bill George defined authentic leadership in his 2003 book “Authentic Leadership.”
Here’s what you need to know:
He wrote the book as an attempt to guide corporate leaders and avoid some of the disasters that happened at the beginning of the 21st century.
Things like the Enron and WorldCom scandals were, to George, examples of negative, unethical, and irresponsible leadership.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Enron scandal:
The book was created as an argument that the world needs not just ethical leaders, but leaders who know what their values are and, more importantly, how to stay true to those values when they lead.
According to George, authentic leaders are:
“People of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations … who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values who have the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all their stakeholders, and who recognize the importance of their service to society.”
But, what does that really mean?
WHAT DEFINES AN AUTHENTIC LEADER
Authentic leadership has five characteristics:
- Know your purpose
- Practice solid values
- Establish connected relationships
- Lead with your heart
- Have self-discipline
It’s important to note:
Each characteristic plays a specific role and helps identify authentic leaders.
However, not only does each characteristic play a role, if a leader is truly practicing authentic leadership, their employees should be able to identify each characteristic through their leader’s behaviors.
It is imperative:
If you want to become an authentic leader, you’ll have to embrace all five of the characteristics.
No one will become an authentic leader overnight.
This takes a long time to master.
So, if you find that you are only good at one characteristic, that’s OK. Keep working on the other four.
Keep in mind:
If you’ve mastered four, you can’t just ignore the fifth one and say “good enough.” A truly authentic leader works hard every day to master all five characteristics.
Here’s what they all mean:
KNOW YOUR PURPOSE
Have you ever thought about:
- Why you’re a leader?
- What is your purpose as a leader?
- What does it mean to be the leader?
Have you ever thought about:
Authentic leaders know their purpose.
Which means what, exactly?
When you know your purpose as a leader, you will know what leadership is.
That sounds like a fortune cookie, or something a fortune teller would say.
I know, but, that, in essence, defines knowing your purpose.
- If you are the leader of the team, what is your purpose?
- Why do you lead?
- What is the purpose of leading?
Answer these questions, and you’ll start to understand your purpose as a leader.
Authentic leaders know why they lead, and where they are going.
To become an authentic leader, you need to figure out why you are leading.
Is it because you wanted power? More money? Did you want to make a difference at the company? In the world?
The answer doesn’t matter.
When you figure it out, you’ll be able to set the direction of your team.
But, how will you show this to others?
When an authentic leader knows why they lead, they become passionate about their jobs. Every day they come to work and love what they do. And, with any luck, that passion helps inspire the rest of the team.
Authentic leaders know why they lead and are passionate about their job.
PRACTICE SOLID VALUES
We’ve all got our own set of values. They are important to us and helps us make decisions.
Authentic leaders also have a set of values that are important. But, in authentic leadership, not only does the leader know their values, they stay true to them and do not compromise.
Which means what, exactly?
An authentic leader lets the team know what the team’s values are.
If one of the team values is “No Shortcuts,” if a team member is taking shortcuts, that person is held accountable. It doesn’t matter who the team member is or why they did it, everyone is held accountable every time.
An authentic leader also has personal values.
If you make your team aware that you have dinner with your family every night, they should not expect you to answer emails between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Then, make sure you never answer the emails.
An authentic leader who has strong values will always be true to them. Their behavior is consistent and does not violate their beliefs.
Authentic leaders make decisions and lead according to their personal values.
ESTABLISH CONNECTED RELATIONSHIPS
Authentic leadership requires you to create and maintain connected relationships.
This doesn’t mean going to every baby shower, bar mitzvah, and backyard barbecue the staff invites you to.
It does mean connecting with your employees on a personal, and meaningful level (without going overboard).
Authentic leadership requires you to develop solid and personal (but professional) relationships with your staff.
How do you build these relationships?
Well, here’s what you need to know:
Authentic leaders talk to their staff like people, not just employees. When people gather in the break room for idle chit-chat, the authentic leader talks about more than work.
Like a less annoying Michael Scott on “The Office”:
That’s not all:
Authentic leadership means asking about staff’s personal lives and taking an interest in what they have to say. Learn about their families, ask about their pets, find out what their hobbies are.
Building a connected relationship works both ways.
You should talk about your life as well. Encourage them to ask meaningful questions about your life and answer as honestly and as openly as you can.
Authentic leaders build connected relationships by going deep and treating their employees as more than just staff members.
LEAD WITH YOUR HEART
Authentic leadership also requires you to have a certain level of emotional intelligence and adjusting how you approach certain situations.
This doesn’t mean being a softie (or letting employees walk all over you).
So, how do you lead with your heart?
Authentic leaders have compassion for all of their team members and do their best to help those employees.
If you see an employee struggling with a task, try to find out why they are struggling and see if you can arrange for training or a mentor for that person.
When a staff member is storming around the office and snapping at everyone, take a moment to try and connect with that person and see what the problem is. Maybe it’s work, and maybe it’s personal. And while you may not be able to help resolve the problem, you might be the ear that person needs.
Authentic leaders lead with their hearts and have compassion for their employees.
Authentic leaders are self-disciplined.
They know how to focus and get things done.
The authentic leader will help the team focus and get things done.
However, this doesn’t mean focusing on the task at the expense of everyone and everything. Authentic leadership also requires you to be sensitive to the needs of the team and to adjust accordingly.
How do authentic leaders demonstrate their self-discipline?
It starts by being unflappable.
Authentic leadership means staying calm, cool, and collected when things go sideways. An authentic leader always remains level-headed.
They also take the needs of the team into account when working on projects. This goes hand in hand with being compassionate and connected with the team.
Authentic leaders stay calm under pressure.
HOW TO BE AN AUTHENTIC LEADER
If that seems like a pretty daunting list, it is.
Don’t let it frighten you:
Anyone and everyone can become an authentic leader.
Just, remember this:
It will take time and practice, but, if you start slow and do a little bit every day, you will eventually master the characteristics and be an authentic leader.
EXAMINE AND UNDERSTAND YOUR PAST
The road to authentic leadership means starting in your past.
While you shouldn’t dwell on your past (mistakes or otherwise), there are lessons to be learned.
Often, when faced with a new challenge or an unfamiliar situation, authentic leaders draw upon their past experiences. Authentic leadership means digging into your past and drawing on all of your experiences to help you through the present situation.
And, as painful as this might be, truly authentic leadership comes from examining and understanding where you went wrong in a similar situation.
Authentic leaders examine their past and learn from it.
SEEK HONEST FEEDBACK
Let’s face it:
No one likes to hear that they’re wrong.
Or that they screwed up.
Or that they should have done something differently.
Authentic leaders, though, have to learn how to find honest feedback.
Authentic leaders, though, have to learn how to find honest feedback.
One of the hallmarks of authentic leadership is the ability to say “I’m not perfect.”
That sounds easy, but then, you’ve got to take the next step.
Ask your team the following:
“What can I do differently? How can I improve?”
Authentic leaders aren’t afraid of the truth.
They seek it out because they know it can help them.
Authentic leaders learn to seek out and embrace honest feedback about themselves.
REFLECT, LEARN, AND GROW
Not only do authentic leaders request honest feedback, they reflect, learn and grow from it.
Just like a world-class athlete, the authentic leader knows that practice makes perfect.
It takes years of experience, facing challenges, and even failing, to master the characteristics.
The truth is:
Truly authentic leaders understand and embrace this.
Authentic leaders learn from their successes and failures and grow from them.
UNDERSTAND YOUR PURPOSE
While you may know what your leadership purpose is, do you understand it?
The fact of the matter is:
Often, people confuse the role of leader with the purpose of leader.
And that’s what can lead to an inauthentic leader.
The role of the leader is to, well, lead.
Set the goals and objectives for the department, figure out the KPI’s, schedule the staff. These are the administrative type tasks that have to happen. They are important, but doing those things is part of the role.
The purpose of a leader is to lead the staff. Subtle difference, but important. An authentic leader who knows their purpose knows that they are there to guide the staff.
Your purpose is to help them grow, achieve, and become the best they can.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the KPI’s and department performance.
But, the role of the leader and the purpose of the leader go hand in hand.
You lead your team to greatness by helping your employees become amazing.
Authentic leaders learn how to not only define their purpose.
They also learn how to understand their purpose.
ADAPT AND ADJUST
Just as there is no one right way to organize a closet, there is no one right way to lead.
The reality is:
Using only one leadership style is an inauthentic way to lead.
Authentic leaders know that no two situations are the same.
One leadership style will not fit all.
Authentic leadership requires you to evaluate each situation and adapt accordingly. An authentic leader will “read the room” and understand how to approach each situation. They are sensitive to the needs of others and the situation.
However, when making these adjustments, truly authentic leaders will remain true to their core values and not compromise the team’s goals.
Authentic leaders learn how to adapt and adjust but stay true to their beliefs.
AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP MAY NOT BE FOR EVERYONE
While authentic leadership sounds great on paper, it does have its critics.
The first criticism of authentic leadership is with the word “authentic.”
What does it really mean?
Here’s what you should know:
As we established at the beginning, authentic has a lot of definitions. And, they’re all kind of vague.
If you’re in an uncomfortable situation, you may choose a familiar behavior, because it’s familiar. It makes you comfortable.
Is that truly you being “authentic?”
Or, is it you choosing something because it’s safe.
You could argue you’re staying true to your values, but is that the truth, or just an excuse?
Critics argue that choosing the “authentic self” sometimes means avoiding making the hard choices because we don’t like them. Which, ultimately is not authentic leadership.
WHICH “TRUE SELF”
One of the characteristics of authentic leadership includes being your “true self” at all times.
While you could say that means “being real” at all times is that appropriate?
Because, if it is, that means I’m going to work in yoga pants and slippers from now on.
We all have multiple versions of our “true self.” There is our “true self” for work, our “true self” for our friends, and our “true self” for our parents.
Each of these versions of us is our “true self,” but we can’t be all these things all the time.
Think about it:
If authentic leadership means being your “true self” which one is it? And, is it the one you should really bring to the office?
FULL DISCLOSURE CAN BE TOO FULL
Another criticism of authentic leadership is that full disclosure can be too full.
As a leader, you want your employees to respect you and to follow you. If you can’t do that, you’ll never accomplish the stated goals.
If you spend all your time talking to employees about, say, your messy and complicated personal life, you risk alienating them. Or worse, having them think less of you and question your ability to lead.
And this also applies to work-related thoughts:
If you are having trouble deciding on a course of action, there is nothing wrong with that. And, there is nothing wrong with reaching out to a few colleagues for help.
But, if you start running every choice and every decision through a committee of employees, they may start to wonder who the real leader is.
FULL DISCLOSURE CAN BE TOO FULL
In this global world, your values and other’s values are not always going to be in line.
But, what happens when they are completely out of line, and there is no agreement?
Are your values right? Are theirs? How do you pick?
How do you stay true to your values when they are staying true to theirs?
Of course, you should be flexible and adaptable.
That’s another authentic leadership characteristic. But, how do you do that without compromising your values if your values and their values are completely at odds?
FLEXIBILITY CAN BE TOO FLEXIBLE
Being flexible is one of the main things an authentic leader does.
But, how do you know when flexible is too flexible?
Just like staying too true to your values, is it possible to become too flexible?
If you are a compassionate leader, how many times do you let a team member leave work early to deal with a personal crisis? When is it too many? And, how does that impact the team? What about them? Where’s their compassion?
The argument here is that you may have to start choosing when to be flexible and when to skip it. Of course, that may mean inconsistent behavior on your part. Or, that all you’re doing is being flexible, which could hurt the team in other ways.
In either scenario, you are not being an authentic leader.
DOES SELLING IDEAS MEAN SELLING OUT?
Part of leading means selling concepts and ideas. And sometimes, you have to sell them to people who are not entirely on board.
But, does selling ideas mean selling out?
Many authentic leaders dislike the idea of selling and pitching. The idea of campaigning, persuading, even convincing seems, well, inauthentic. Especially if hard selling goes against their core values.
IGNORING THE FEEDBACK
While you can say you are seeking true and honest feedback and you can say you are learning from it, are you really?
I mean, really doing it.
It’s easy to say you are changing and growing. And, you can even think you’re learning, but it’s actually much harder to do these things.
It can also be much easier to tell yourself you’re actually doing it when, in reality, you’re not.
AUTHENTIC LEADERSHIP IS A PROCESS
Authentic leadership isn’t something you can master in one day. Or even one year.
Instead, remember this:
It is a long process with many tiny steps.
Some of those steps are harder than others. And those may take you more time to master, and that’s OK.
If it were easy, everyone would be an authentic leader.
You will progress, and you will fall back. That’s all part of the process. Becoming an authentic leader is an ongoing choice that you make every day.
As you practice daily, you’ll learn and grow.
Until, one day:
You are the authentic and effective manager you wanted to be.