How Authentic Can We Be as Leaders

By Neil Taylor

‘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 ethical foundations. Generally authentic leaders are positive people with truthful self-concepts who promote openness’ (Wikipedia).

The concept of authenticity can be traced back to ancient Greece with philosophers explaining authenticity as a state through which one has an emphasis on being in control of one’s life. One key quality being self-awareness through an ongoing process of reflection and re-examination of one’s own strength, weakness and values.

As leaders in the organisation, how many of us can claim true insight into the impact of our emotions on the people we manage, the clients/service users with whom we work and the other stakeholders with whom we have a relationship? How many of us can ensure that whatever happens at home, does not infringe on our behaviours at work? How many of us can compartmentalise the frustration and pressures that we continuously experience so that it does not affect the positivity and optimism we need to generate in our staff every day?

It is not easy to find the balance between being true to your emotions at any point in your day and not allowing your ‘mood’ to present itself in a way that has a detrimental affect on others work; their ability to provide compassionate care; and to maintain an energy that residents, tenants, and clients can feed off to live purposeful and meaningful lives; and that finally does not have an adverse effect on your reputation.

There is no doubt being authentic is an essential quality and in keeping with the importance we place on the values of integrity. People want to know their leaders are genuine, can be trusted, are believable, empathetic and honest. As a leader, particularly under the pressure of working in client or education services, the complexities of the situations we face and the expectations of the quality of support, care or teaching we should be providing, it is not possible to maintain our composure, keep a smile on our face or be engaging at all times and I, for one, appreciate that I have struggled with this during my career.

However, as leaders, we cannot afford to allow our commitment to being ‘true to our feelings’ to seep into the way people perceive us. We cannot allow the frustrations we may feel about colleagues or the people we serve, to affect us to the extent that we do not engage with them, or even worse, ignore them. It doesn’t achieve anything and only gives the impression that we are not approachable, lack resilience and it will ultimately undermine people’s willingness to engage with and follow our leadership.

Having a deep level of emotional intelligence so that we understand the impact that the emotions we experience is essential to being an authentic leader. This balance can be described in relational transparency; open sharing by the leader of his or her own thoughts and beliefs, balanced by a minimisation of inappropriate emotions. It is the self-awareness we can nurture and how we manage our emotions that will enable us to assertively (and not passively aggressively) challenge difficult situations/people and have courageous conversations.

Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, suggests that rather than trying to redefine what it means to be authentic, leadership development should focus on how leaders develop their authenticity. ‘Being authentic as a leader, is hard work and takes years of experience. No one can be authentic without fail; everyone behaves inauthentically at times, saying and doing things they will come to regret. The key is to have the self-awareness to recognise these times and listen to close colleagues who point them out.’

In preparing a self-assessment tool, ‘Discover Your True Worth,’ he recommends a number of steps leaders should undertake to develop a deeper understanding of themselves:

  • Explore their life stories and their crucible in order to understand who they are.
  • Engage in reflection and introspective practices by taking time every day to step back from the 24/7 world.
  • Seeking honest feedback about themselves and their leadership.
  • Understanding their leadership purpose so they can align people around a common purpose.
  • Become skilled at tailoring their style to their audience, imperatives of the situation and readiness of their teammates to accept different approaches.

While recent critiques of authenticity may resonate with many when they talk about ‘the last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is authentic and that ‘Being Yourself is actually terrible advice … nobody wants to see your true self,’ it is my view that our challenge as authentic leaders is to adapt to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, be true to ourselves and others and invest in ensuring we are in touch with what troubles us, so that we are equipped to maintain our levels of energy and positivity at the highest level.

Neil Taylor is Director of Care & Community Services, Jewish Care, UK.

Cross-posted on the Leatid Blog