Are you an Authentic Leader?

13 Jul 23 | Jennie Marshall

We recently asked some graduates to shout out words or phrases that came to mind when they thought about the word ‘leadership’ and about those leaders they have come to admire. In this latest blog, our Head of Learning Solutions Jennie Marshall discusses the findings and what it takes to be an authentic leader.

Here’s what they said: integrity, authenticity, courage and someone who leads according to their value system. Now, some people might say, ‘Ah, the youth of today! You’ve got to love their idealism’. But I say, wait a minute! Why can’t this ‘idealism’ be reality?

Yes, it’s true that the news is full of reports about businesses that have failed due to greed, corruption, or both. Or leaders that have stepped down from their position for not leading from the front in a crunch situation. The leaders of these companies weren’t acting with integrity or authenticity, but that’s because they chose not to, right?

Living according to your value system is a choice. I doubt many of these leaders woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to be the greediest, most corrupt CEO that I can be’. It took time and it took ignoring that inner voice that lives inside all of us that says, ‘Hold on. This isn’t how I want to be’.

To take it to a personal level, think about your daily interactions as a leader. In what circumstances may you find yourself being less than authentic?

In attempts to live up to organisational expectations, do your behaviours sometimes go against the grain of who you are? Do you pay lip service to conversations because you have to instead of saying what needs to be said? Do you hold back from speaking your opinion due to internal politics? Or would you like to possess the confidence and conviction to speak the hard truth, even if it is not what people want to hear? And doing so in a way that people recognise and respect your authentic position regarding the matter at hand and gain their commitment?

So the question is, given the constant challenges in the organisations we lead, how do you stay on course to be that authentic leader?

The road to authentic leadership involves reflection and respect for your own values.

Authentic leadership involves regular reflection on what’s true for you. We get so caught up in the day to day grind, reacting, putting out fires, responding to people’s demands that over time our own value system can get lost, ignored, and disconnected. Then, one day, we wake up and ask ourselves the question, ‘How did I get here?’

If you ever have a moment like that (and even if you haven’t given much thought to it), ask these questions:

  • Is what I’m doing consistent with what I believe?
  • Is this how I want to experience my career and life?
  • Is it in alignment with what I value?
  • What is really important to ME?

Part of staying true to yourself involves having clarity around your own value system.

What do you stand for? What do you believe in? What’s important to you?

Look at the path you have taken and the choices you have made to this point. What have been the determining factors when making decisions and choices? Have you made choices by default, allowing circumstances to drive your decisions, or have your choices been deliberate, moving you along the path that you want to go down? Do you have a value or belief that you’ve always known about deep down, but that you have not been honouring, or ‘covering up’?

Current research supports the hypothesis that the high performance leaders of today are those who are able to lead their organisations in a way that is in alignment with their own value systems. Marian N Ruderman and Sharon Rogolsky (writing for the Center for Creative Leadership, USA), found that the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership, not surprisingly, has a high correlation.

Their research defined the characteristics of authentic leadership:

  • Clarity about one’s values, priorities, and preferences
  • Acceptance of the necessity for choices and trade-offs in life
  • A strong sense of self-determination
  • A willingness to work toward aligning one’s values
  • A high degree of comfort and satisfaction with decisions made earlier in life

Their findings revealed that those managers who had peak performance were those who were able to bring their real, whole selves to work and were able to practice their own natural leadership styles.

The hard part for people is this: while it intrinsically makes sense to behave and make decisions that are in alignment with their value system, it often involves risk. It requires the courage to respect the answers that these questions generate. I realise that this is the challenging part because so often in the workplace it’s difficult for people to be who they really are and to express their values due to the organisation’s culture or office politics. Many people find it hard to be authentic in the workplace because it makes them feel vulnerable.

However, when you think about it, doing less than that is selling yourself out. Just as important, most people who come to know you will see you as covering up or living a lie. This leads to loss of credibility, lack of support and, ultimately, lack of trust.

Remember, it takes courage to step back, reflect upon your values and then have enough respect for these values and yourself to start having the conversations in the workplace that you need to start having. But this follow-through is integral to becoming an authentic leader and it’s an ongoing process. You must continually be aware of who you are and what you stand for. Take that regular time-out through coaching to have that rare breathing space, to reflect and get centred so that your choices are deliberate, as opposed to being reactive and driven by circumstance.

The path you choose determines the life you lead and the legacy you leave. Each day you make choices. Make sure the ones you make are based on what you stand for and who you are. I know it’s not easy, but having those courageous conversations with yourself and then acting on them, will put you on the road to authentic leadership.

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Jennie Marshall

Jennie Marshall

Head of Learning Solutions

Proud Yorkshire lass, keen baker, green fingered and Labrador mum