People tend to equate authenticity with feeling that someone is real and on the level — saying & doing what they feel when they feel it, no matter what. Authenticity is held as the opposite to being ‘politically correct’, as if to say that if it sounds politically correct (or if someone seeks to be ‘appropriate’), it must not be real.
But authentic leadership — being an ‘authentic leader’ — is much more than all that.
Yes, people who are authentic say what they mean, and they strive to keep their word. And the image they project in public is not drastically different from how they are in private.
But an authentic leader doesn’t stop there.
Authentic leaders lead with vision, purpose, and an open mind to new ideas. An authentic leader is self-aware; they reflect on all their actions & decisions and examine their own strengths and weaknesses without bias, constantly seeking to learn & grow in service of those they lead. They lead with heart — courage coupled with empathy & respect for all, and are always seeking to add value to others. Success is never about them as an individual. You never hear an authentic leader taking credit: credit belongs to the team, whereas, responsibility for failures or setbacks lie with them as leader. They are consistent, appropriate, driven, thoughtful, and humble. Compassionate and caring, they are excellent listeners. Authentic leaders have a strong moral code. They openly share their motives, values and morals, and in alignment with them, make ethical decisions and choose appropriate behaviors. Strength of character is essential, as it provides a foundation for continuous improvement and realignment.
Anyone can be authentic. But being an Authentic Leader is harder — it’s the high road, the long view. Doing what is right, not what’s easy.
When it comes to leadership, the “speak your mind” definition of authenticity is both simplistic and dangerous. When coaching leaders, I often describe leaders as writing in bold print and large font or speaking with a megaphone. Leadership comes with great responsibility; everything you say and do matters. People look to your behavior to understand what’s acceptable — to know where the boundaries are. Essentially, to know what is right & good. Great leaders know they don’t know everything, so when they do speak their mind, they do it with humility. They acknowledge it outright. When they get it wrong, they admit they were wrong, without blaming or shaming others. If they end up on the ‘low road’, they apologize & course correct. They see failure as a natural part of life, and learning from mistakes as strength, not weakness.
History is full of people put in leadership positions because they were “authentic” — because they spoke their mind. But some of them also had weak moral character and zero ethics. Corrupted by the power afforded them by their position, and filled with fear of losing said power, they played on people’s fear. They sought to unite people against a ‘common enemy’ — some person or group that is to blame for all their troubles. And, of course, they sold themselves as the one person who could save the day. None of that is leadership.
Bottom line: Value authenticity, yes; but do so in balance with other characteristics. Don’t be fooled by impostors. There is more to Authentic Leadership than ‘speaking your mind’ no matter what. Look for honor, integrity, respect, and empathy. Seek love over hate, compassion over shame. Find real, not righteous.