Becoming a more authentic leader


Authenticity is a popular term in modern workplaces and a core component of many books and models on contemporary leadership practice. It is generally accepted that authentic leaders are able to promote higher levels of engagement, motivation and productivity.  Employees want to believe in the people that lead them and look for a variety of indicators that point to who they truly are at their core. Trust has become one of the most critical elements underpinning organisational culture, with employees increasingly sceptical of any inconsistency between the message being conveyed and the behaviour being observed. As a result, every aspiring leader wants to be seen as authentic and most existing leaders espouse that they already are. But is this really true?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines authenticity as being “true to one’s own personality, spirit and character”.  Harvard professor Bill George describes authentic leaders as those who really know who they are – they are passionate about their purpose, deeply connected to their values and confident in leading from their heart as well as their mind. This presents an interesting contrast to the systemic nature of modern workplaces. Generally speaking, employees rise to the ranks of leadership by delivering on externally set objectives and by conforming to others expectations of their behaviour.  Individual difference is less often encouraged and measurement and reward practices are typically aligned with how well one “fits” into the system.  Graduate schools teach best practice models of leadership which encourage their students to develop specific competencies and skill sets in order to ensure their future success.  While emulating the behaviour of successful leaders and applying the latest management techniques may be useful in developing broader skill sets, ultimately one cannot be an authentic leader simply by imitating others or replicating models.

A truly authentic leader has a deep understanding of who they are and what this means. They recognise the importance of taking a step back and allowing the necessary time to explore and reflect on their experiences in order to enhance their self-insights.  Authentic leaders accept who they are and openly demonstrate this toward others, with a clear understanding of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They understand the importance of taking personal risks and are not afraid of showing vulnerability. Authentic leaders act with integrity in everything they do and operate from a position that is consistent with their personal values. They are passionate and purposeful which enables them to generate energy and creativity through their ideas. Authentic leaders understand the importance of connectedness and they look for the collective value in any group of individuals. They have the courage to make mistakes and the humility to learn from their experiences.

So how can a leader become more authentic given the systemic constraints that are inherent in modern workplaces? Below are a number of tips that can help individuals connect with their authenticity without compromising on the things that have helped them be successful in the past.

  1. Explore your story
    Self-insight, acceptance and respect are critical elements of authentic leadership.  If you do not know yourself truly, how can you express this to others?  Take time to reflect on your own journey and the unique story that you have to tell – then share it!
  2. Connect with your values and passions
    Your values and passions underpin who you are at your core.  Take some time to think about the things that are most important to you and the times that you have felt most alive.  What are the common themes?  What do you want to be known for?  How can you do more of this?
  3. Play to your strengths
    Most leadership programs teach you to identify and then address your weaknesses as priority.  While this may be important, it is not enough as your weaknesses are not responsible for your successes.  Instead, invest more energy into really understanding your strengths and then look for new ways to use them.  Don’t ignore opportunities for improvement, but first make sure you are doing the most you can with what you already have.
  4. Take personal risks
    To be truly authentic as a leader, there are going to be times when you feel vulnerable.  However this is where you truly get to test your potential and learn more about what you are capable of.  Be prepared to stand-out and show people who you really are without the fear of vulnerability.  Commit to testing the boundaries of your own comfort zone and do something different.

Please contact us if you would like to learn more about how Optim works with executives, teams and private individuals to help them connect with who they are so they can create a more authentic experience.