What is authentic leadership?

Updated: Nov 13, 2019

There is much talk about what a “good” leader or Manager looks like in the workplace. Whether you are in a new leadership position or you have been managing a team for years – how do you know if you are a good leader?

And what does a good leader even look like?

A simple definition of leadership is that “leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. ... He or she is the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills that makes others want to follow his or her direction.”

So, what makes others want to follow your direction? Is it directing them, so they know what to do? Is it expecting them to do things your way? Often admirable traits of leadership are discussed as defining factors in leadership – such as decisive, confident and inspirational. But what about authentic? Is your style of leadership true to you?

There is strong research to suggest that authentic leadership is one of the strongest influences on an employee’s job satisfaction, organisational commitment and workplace happiness. So, to ensure long term happiness and productivity out of your team – then its critical that your team feel your authenticity as a leader.

Authentic leadership is defined as “a management style in which leaders are genuine, self-aware, and transparent. An authentic leader is able to inspire loyalty and trust in her employees by consistently displaying who she really is as a person, and how she feels about her employees' performance. Authentic leadership is the single strongest predictor of an employee's job satisfaction.”

In Radical Candour by Kim Scott – She talks about her theory that from around the age of 18 we are told to be “professional”. And what most people interpret that to mean is to lose your humanity – the things that make you – you. It stands then that being an authentic leader is incredibly challenging as you gain responsibility and scope. Being an authentic as a leader has to be consciously worked at. There are many examples and studies on great leadership that works for other people – but what is authentic to you?

Authenticity requires you to remind yourself and your team that you are human.

Authentic Leadership Theory

According to the theory there are 4 components to Authentic Leadership.

1. Self-Awareness

As a leader we may feel a sense of responsibility to be seen as a strong leader who makes the right choices and does the right thing at all times. And whilst leaders may feel they are doing the right thing – what this actually does is create a barrier between you and your team. When you can’t admit your mistakes, it makes it incredibly hard for your team to feel comfortable admitting theirs.

As a leader, it's critical you have a strong sense of self, including understanding and being transparent about your strengths, weaknesses, and values. It's impossible to demonstrate authenticity as a leader if you're unsure of who you are or what you stand for in the first place.

Additionally, by displaying both your strengths and weaknesses to your team, you're able to demonstrate that you have nothing to hide, don’t play games and you are happy to admit where you have made mistakes. In this way, you're better equipped to build trust among your team, and when your employee makes a mistake, she'll feel more comfortable admitting her error to you.

Self-awareness is critical for acting appropriately as a leader and feeling empathy for how your employees might perceive your feedback. Understanding how negative feedback may make an employee feel and balancing out their needs with the needs of the business. Observing if the way you communicated the issue could have been done in a better way.

Additionally, perhaps you can mitigate these issues in the future by regularly practicing self-observation, so you're able to notice, in the moment, "I am very frustrated right now, so I will wait until I am calm to have this conversation with my team."

2. Relational Transparency

Passive aggression, subtle messaging, and convoluted feedback all prevent you from being an authentic leader. To truly foster authenticity, it's vital you remain genuine, straightforward, and honest with your team. Let them know where they stand -- if they mess up, tell them. If they do well, tell them.

While it might seem counter-intuitive -- "How will I become close to my team if I am often providing constructive rather than positive feedback?" -- it works in your favour in the long-run, as your employees trust that you are not "hiding" your true feelings regarding their performance, and that you understand the challenges of their role.

The point is, authentic leadership must start with you displaying behaviour you hope to see in your employees, as well. If you aren't transparent and honest, how can you expect your employees to come forward with problems when they arise?

3. Balanced Processing

A leader needs to make decisions and stay true to her decision in the face of opposition -- but she must also be capable of receiving and considering alternative viewpoints before choosing a plan of action.

When making major decisions, it's important you ask for alternative opinions and remain open to discussion. While it's important you stick to your values, it's equally critical you seek out opposing viewpoints, which can help you see flaws in your initial course of action, or enable you to strengthen your argument by understanding all points of view.

Additionally, if you want to be an authentic leader, it's critical you create an environment in which employees feel both safe and encouraged to share their opinions. This ties back to self-awareness -- you must be self-aware enough to accept that your opinion, by itself, is likely biased or partial. By collecting outside feedback, you're able to see more potential weaknesses in your decision.

4. Internalised Moral Perspective (“Do the Right Thing”)

An authentic leader needs to know when to put the needs of the company and its customers ahead of herself and her team. Ultimately, a leader should be focused on doing the right thing for the long-term success of the business -- not herself.

Additionally, it's critical a leader have strong ethical values and integrity and exercise these traits even in the face of tempting shortcuts. In the long run doing the right thing by your customers, business and team will have more of an impact on success than taking a shortcut.

Being an authentic leader is ensuring your behaviour matches the values you want to instil in your team. If you want your team to come to meetings on time and prepared – then you should too. If you want your team to take accountability for their responsibilities – then again you should too.

Why Authenticity in Leadership is Difficult to Achieve

Ultimately, the four components of authentic leadership are good jumping-off points, but it's important you remember the true meaning of authenticity -- the ability to express yourself as you truly are.

The meaning of authenticity makes it inherently difficult to prescribe in any one way.

Ultimately, authenticity is a leadership skill like any other -- and skills can always be developed (or weakened) over time, depending on your conscious efforts. To ensure you're able to lead your team as well as they deserve, it's critical you remain focused on demonstrating authenticity whenever possible.

Do you or your team need help with their leadership style? The Talent Mill offers tailored workshops that helps you develop the skills to be an authentic leader.

Contact us now for more information on how this can work for you!

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