Authentic organisational leadership

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Many people want to become leaders without giving much attention to their purpose. Because they are attracted by the power and prestige of leading an organisation and the financial rewards that go with it. 

To find purpose, you must first understand yourself, your passions, and your underlying motivations. Then you must seek an environment that offers a fit between the organisation's purpose and your own.

Chris Cancialosi once asked a question and answered it this way, 'do you lead authentically? If you’re not sure, you are not alone.' Many leaders are beginning to question themselves, especially when tough situations force them to act in ways that don’t align with their true beliefs. When they must juggle different personas across different settings and boundaries, they can start to feel deceptive. As a leader, you may feel like you’re walking on a delicate tightrope, with your true self on one side and the responsibilities of your position on the other.

The key components of authenticity (self-knowledge, self-awareness, authentic behaviour, and self-regulation) mean you have to know your history and be aware of who you are in the moment; align your behaviour with your values, and know when and why you deviate from those values. We all like to think that our true self is behind every action, but many leaders don’t do a great job of leading authentically — mostly because practising authenticity is easier said than done.

Authentic leadership is an approach to leadership that emphasises building the leader's legitimacy through honest relationships with followers which value their input and are built on an ethical foundation. Generally, authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness.

Sometimes one may ask how many leaders attempt to be one way at the workplace, however, their “true” personality materialises outside of work. Once a friend reminded me, “Leadership is acting.” But anybody who holds this conception of leadership should not be shocked or confused when their employees don’t trust them, don’t like them, and can’t really wait to work elsewhere. Authentic leadership has been explored sporadically as part of modern management science but found its highest levels of acceptance since Bill George’s 2003 book, Authentic Leadership.

Kevin Kruse has stated that although different theorists have different slants on the concept, most of them agree that:

1. Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine. Authentic leaders are self-actualised individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses out of fear of looking weak. They also realise that being self-actualised is an endless journey, never complete.

2. Authentic leaders are mission-driven and focused on results. They are able to put the mission and the goals of the organisation ahead of their own self-interest. They do the job in pursuit of results, not for their own power, money or ego.

3. Authentic leaders lead with their heart, not just their minds. They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are “soft.” In fact communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but it’s done with empathy; directness without empathy is cruel.

4. Authentic leaders focus on the long-term. A key tenet of Bill George’s model is the company leaders are focused on long-term shareholder value, not in just beating quarterly estimates. Leaders realise that to nurture individuals and to nurture a company requires hard work and patience, but the approach pays large dividends over time.

Before we can get into how to be an authentic leader, we have to first understand why authenticity is so difficult to maintain in the workplace.

There are many fears that keep leaders from striving to be their authentic selves, such as exposing a real or imagined weakness, losing respect, or even missing out on an opportunity. To make matters worse, workplace culture, professional subcultures, industry cultures, and even national cultures all exert enormous pressure on leaders to conform. If your views differ from the cultural norm, you may hesitate to express them.

Authentic leaders demonstrate these five qualities:

Understanding their purpose

Practising solid values

Leading with heart

Establishing connected relationships

Demonstrating self-discipline

Authentic leadership is built on your character, not your style. Warren Bennis said, “Leadership is character. It is not just a superficial question of style. It has to do with who we are as human beings and the forces that shaped us. Style is the outward manifestation of one’s authentic leadership, not one’s inner self. To become authentic leaders, people must adopt flexible styles that fit the situation and capabilities of their teammates. 

At times, authentic leaders are coaches and mentors, inspiring others and empowering their teammates to lead through the most important tasks without a great deal of supervision. At other times, authentic leaders must make very difficult decisions, terminating people and going against the will of the majority, as required to meet the situational imperative. These difficult actions can be taken while still retaining their authenticity.

Authentic leaders are real and genuine. You cannot “fake it till you make it” by putting on a show as a leader or being a chameleon in your style. People sense very quickly who is authentic and who is not. Some leaders may pull it off for a while, but ultimately they will not gain the trust of their teammates, especially when dealing with difficult situations. If people see their leaders as trustworthy and willing to learn, followers will respond very positively to requests for help in getting through difficult times.

Authentic leaders are constantly growing. They do not have a rigid view of themselves and their leadership. Becoming authentic is a developmental state that enables leaders to progress through multiple roles, as they learn and grow from their experiences. Like superior performances in athletics or music, becoming an authentic leader requires years of practice in challenging situations.

Authentic leaders match their behaviour to their context, an essential part of emotional intelligence (EQ). They do not burst out with whatever they may be thinking or feeling. Rather, they exhibit self-monitoring, understand how they are being perceived, and use emotional intelligence (EQ) to communicate effectively.

Authentic leaders are not perfect, nor do they try to be. They make mistakes, but they are willing to admit their errors and learn from them. They know how to ask others for help. Nor are authentic leaders always humble or modest. It takes a great deal of self-confidence to lead through very difficult situations.

Authentic leaders are sensitive to the needs of others. One author has suggested that “What if your real self is a jerk?” People are not born as jerks, nor does this behaviour reflect their authentic selves. Rather, these individuals likely had very negative experiences early in their lives that cause them to have difficulty in managing their anger, in part because they feel like victims or feel inadequate.

Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviours carefully to be attuned to their audiences and to enrol their colleagues and teammates. They do so because they are sensitive to the impact their words and actions have on others, not because they are “messaging” the right talking points.

Engage in reflection and introspective practices by taking time every day to step back from the 24/7 world, turn off all electronics, and reflect on what is most important to them. This can be done through introspective practices that are growing rapidly in popularity, such as meditation, mindfulness, prayer, long walks to clear one’s mind, or simply sitting quietly and reflecting. The key here is set aside the preoccupation with task lists, iPhones, and the latest news in order to reflect privately. In this way, the urgent does not take precedence over the important in one’s life, and leaders examine how they are living their lives and engaging with the world around them.

Seeking honest feedback from colleagues, friends, and subordinates about themselves and their leadership. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to understand how other people see them, which is often quite different than how they want to be seen. To gain a greater understanding of how they are coming across, authentic leaders obtain real-time feedback by listening to their “truth tellers,” who give them candid critiques about their leadership. Those that surround themselves with loyal sycophants, who only tell them how well they are doing rather than being brutally honest, risk going off track. Leaders also gather feedback through regular 360-degree reviews from peers and subordinates. The qualitative comments shared in 360 reviews can be of great benefit if leaders take them to heart, and genuinely try to change.

Understand their leadership purpose so they can align people around a common purpose. Purpose defines the unique gifts people bring to leadership challenges, through which they can align others with their purposes in order to create positive impact. This is far more important than focusing entirely on achieving success in metrics like money, fame and power, yet ultimately produces sustained success in those metrics as well.

Become skilled at tailoring their style to their audiences, imperatives of the situation, and readiness of their teammates to accept different approaches. There are times when leaders have to make difficult decisions that are sure to displease people, and they’ll need to give tough feedback. At other times they need to be inspiring, good coaches, and consensus builders. These flexible styles aren’t inauthentic if they come from a genuinely authentic place. In this sense leaders’ styles become the outward manifestation of their authenticity. As leaders gain experience and develop greater self-awareness, they become more skilful in adapting their style, without compromising their character.Leaders must be deliberate and intentional if they are to be successful, “the power is yours”.