How To Be An Authentic Leader

Leadership trends come and go, but over the last decade authentic leadership has emerged as the ‘gold standard’, as proclaimed in 2015 by the Harvard Business Review[1]. Gaining popularity in the business world especially after the ethical questions raised during the global financial crisis, authentic leadership is based on honesty, sincerity and integrity.

It is a leadership model in which leaders are motivated by a purpose larger than themselves, rather than their self-interest, and build trust by acting in alignment with solid values.

There is no one ‘right’ way to be an authentic leader, but here are 3 steps you can take to define and develop your own unique authentic leadership style:

1. Build self-awareness

As authentic leadership expert Bill George[2] says, ‘The essence of authentic leadership is emotional intelligence.’ This requires developing a deeper understanding of yourself, to form a solid foundation for your leadership style.

Take time to identify your vision, values and strengths. Reflect on how you are engaging with the world around you, and the impact you have on others. Seek honest feedback from your colleagues, customers, other stakeholders and people who know you well – how are you showing up in the world, and does that reflect who you want to be?

2. Take aligned action

Authentic leadership requires acting in alignment with your values. How consistently are you walking your talk? Being present and practising mindfulness will help you tune into how well you are connecting with others.

Authentic leaders are also known for being genuine and real. They connect and build rapport with others by learning about them and finding common ground to reveal their approachability. However, leadership experts Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones[3] caution that this doesn’t mean uncontrolled expression or being transparent about what you’re thinking and feeling at all times, which may result in losing credibility or effectiveness. It’s also not an excuse for bad behaviour under the guise of ‘authenticity’.

Instead, Bill George recommends[4] that authentic leaders match their behaviour to the context. This involves selective self-disclosure and vulnerability based on what is appropriate for a particular situation. It’s not being fake, but flexible. Use your judgment to adjust your style or reveal different, but true, facets of your personality depending on the circumstances and what your followers are looking for.

It'll likely require practice to become comfortable being authentic, and skilled at adapting your leadership style to find the balance between demonstrating authority and approachability. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones advise that ‘Great leaders understand that their reputation for authenticity needs to be painstakingly earned and carefully managed.’

3. Evolve with experience

It’s important to recognise that we are all growing and learning, so your ‘authentic self’ will also evolve over time. Professor Herminia Ibarra recommends[5] experimenting with effective styles, behaviours and tactics you observe in diverse role models, and then integrating what works for you into your own leadership style.

Ensure you regularly – ideally daily – take time to reflect and process your experiences. As you grow, let go of old stories that become outdated, and don’t hold on to a narrow or rigid image of yourself.

Becoming an authentic leader can be challenging but also meaningful and rewarding, for you and those you lead.

Which of these steps is most relevant for you now in your authentic leadership journey? Leave a comment below to let us know!