"You are a very good facilitator and guide through the DiSC processes. I completely agree that too much kindness by an S type Agent pattern could become a weakness. Thank you for catching this early in my managing career and what a difference it is going to make. I owe you."

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Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin

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3 Practices For Authentic Leadership

(posted: November 5th, 2013)

The most successful leaders, the ones whose companies perform the best over time, whose organizations survive tough economic times and navigate change unscathed, are the ones who have won the hearts and minds of their people. Gaining that heartfelt, passionate engagement requires authenticity.

Does authenticity really matter? Doesn't a leader set the direction and employees are expected to follow it?

Sure, that kind of leadership has been around forever, and we can all think of examples.

But times are changing. I see it in my day-to-day interactions with clients and colleagues.

People crave authentic leadership, and when they get it, they respond with amazing levels of engagement and productivity.

What is an authentic leader?

Authentic Leaders:

  • Are genuine, all the time - They are the same person in public and in private. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and don't hide their mistakes.
  • Demonstrate passion for their purpose & results - not self-interest and personal gain. They do the job in pursuit of the organization's goal, not just for money, power or status.
  • Lead with their heart & head - They are willing to be vulnerable, to connect with their employees. They communicate directly and honestly to get results, but because they build long-term relationships and trust, and have empathy for their employees, their directness is not cruel or mean.
  • Know and practice their values - Authentic leaders stick like glue to their values, practicing them with every action, showing consistency and reliability. Even when they are taking risks, their values are clearly taken into account. More on this is here, in a related post.

My clients - executives, managers, even the leaders-to-be - tend to resonate with the idea of becoming authentic leaders, and want to know how. Here are a few suggestions for getting started.

3 Practices for Becoming an Authentic Leader

First, I have to be clear that there is no magic bullet for becoming a successful leader, nor is there a simple list of the traits required. There are, however, some practices that are common to successful leaders, and you can use them to develop your own leadership abilities.

1 - Know Yourself

You must be willing to go deep, discovering and developing yourself continually throughout your career. Self-awareness is probably the first and most important key to being an authentic leader. When you understand yourself, you will understand how you can use your unique gifts to serve others as a leader.

When the 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business's Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness.

Do you REALLY know your strengths? How many of you have taken a strengths assessment or a 360? DiSC is a great tool for this.

One of the exercises I use with clients is identifying core values. This is simple, but not necessarily easy. It requires that you take some quiet time alone and think about the things that matter to you. Make lists of everything that comes to mind: your beliefs, convictions, things you hold dear, the building blocks that inform what you do. Look for words that wake you up and get you excited. I have a "seed list" of words that I use for to get people started - If you'd like a copy, please let me know.

Once you've completed your list, go back over it and narrow it down to the three or four that are the most important - The few, extremely powerful guiding principles that have a profound impact on how you think and act. A lot of the items on your list will fold into these few.

These are your core values, the elements that should be at the base of every action you take. Periodically, run a personal "integrity scan":

  • Is my behavior out of alignment with my values in the workplace?
  • In my personal relationships?
  • In my life?
  • Are my decisions and choices reflecting my core values?

Does your scan find integrity "outages"? If so, where and what are they?

Sticking to your core values becomes more difficult in trying situations when, for example, your career is at stake.

Leadership principles are values translated into action.

~Bill George, author - True North

2 - Identify Your Motivators, Extrinsic and Intrinsic

If you are going to be an authentic leader, you need to stay highly motivated. To do this, you need to understand what drives you.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of you. It is measured against parameters set by the outside world, such as promotions, financial rewards, and status.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within you. It is derived from an appreciation for the meaning of what you do. Examples of intrinsic motivation include making a difference, helping others grow, filling a need, personal development, enjoyment of challenging work.

Both kinds of motivation are valid. The key for authentic leaders is to find a balance between the two, and to consciously develop the intrinsic motivators. They are the ones that will sustain you over the long term, and lead you to truly meaningful success. Intrinsic motivators align with your core values and are more fulfilling than extrinsic motivators.

3 - Don't Forget Your Followers

Your people, your followers, can make or break you as a leader. Remember that your employees want:

  • Trust - They want to trust you and to be trusted by you. Your authenticity & openness will help to develop their trust in you. You can read more on trust, here
  • Meaning - People need to know that what they are doing matters
  • Challenge - Most people want some challenge in their work, tasks that they are capable of performing but that require them to stretch a bit
  • Engagement - Make the goals exciting and get your followers enthused about the project
  • Community - Your people want to be involved in something bigger than themselves, to have the solidarity of working together towards a larger, meaningful goal.

Develop your followers. Communicate the goals to them clearly, include them in the process, ask them for their support. Build relationships with them - ask for honest feedback, listen to what they have to say. Where would you be today if it was not for others - mentors, family, coaches.

The Value of Authentic Leadership

These are just a sampling of the practices needed to develop your authentic leadership.

It is a lifelong journey that begins, and continues, with self-awareness and exploration. It is not an affair of the head, but the heart. Leadership development is self-development. Meeting the leadership challenge is a personal, daily challenge.

Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to developing yourself. Like musicians or athletes, you must devote yourself to a lifetime of practicing to realize your potential.

Ultimately, authentic leadership is the evolution of leadership for our century.

For further reading on related topics, try these posts:

Challenge Yourself
  • How have you been working on your authenticity as a leader?
  • What other techniques have worked for you?
  • How have your experiences with other leaders shaped your view of authentic leadership vs. inauthentic leadership?


Images licensed from 123RF

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