What is authentic leadership: showing up as yourself matters

Do you believe you are a strong leader? Do you believe you are an authentic leader? How do you appear in your business’s PR and comms?

Ever since Harvard University professor Bill George published his ‘Authentic Leader’ in 2003, business leaders have been inspired and enticed by the ideals of authentic leadership theory. Its concept is relatively simple, the belief that a leader is genuinely real. Research indicates that authentic leadership has a huge influence on employee happiness, job satisfaction and employee engagement.

Why is being authentic necessary?

Authentic comms

In a PR and comms context, communication and authenticity go hand in hand and this applies to both internal and external comms.

Authenticity should be woven throughout your entire comms strategy. It’s a matter of trust, because when it comes to your teams and your external audience – be it to your customers or the wider public – maintaining this trust is vital.

A breach of this trust can have damaging long term effects on both personal and corporate brands. Particularly in the modern age, where ESG initiatives are becoming huge socio-economic drivers for businesses.

How authenticity affects internal comms

Maintaining a level of authenticity when it comes to leadership and internal comms is crucial to maintaining both harmony and productivity.

People are hardwired to pick up on things that are out of the ordinary. From a leadership perspective, this can manifest itself in many ways, both good and bad.

Authentic internal comms is the bedrock of any organisation and this is applicable in good times and bad. A very recent example of the poor, inauthentic handling of internal comms is the ongoing P&O ferries scandal.

This national and international scandal gained a vicious head of steam within the media, because company bosses committed a rather cloak and dagger operation, sacking 800 workers with zero consultation. The incident, which is still unfolding within the media, was referred to by one Labour MP as ‘The worst behaviour of a 19th-century mill owner.’

How authenticity affects external comms

The perception of company leaders is closely tied to the business. When you think of Amazon, Jeff Bezos will probably pop into your mind. The same goes for Elon Musk and Tesla, Richard Branson and Virgin, Karren Brady and West Ham Football Club, and Melanie Perkins and Canva.

Their movements are closely scrutinised both by fans and the media. Elon even has a Twitter account that tracks his plane’s movements. A CEO that appears to be authentic and their true self will be seen as a more valuable asset than a CEO considered less reputable.

Our world is a digital-first one, with long memories. Nearly everything you have written and posted will be available to anyone who wants to search for more information on you. Your digital appearance will contribute to your brand and your company’s success.

But what does this have to do with authentic leadership?

We are attuned to picking up on unfamiliarity and insincerity, call it a sixth sense if you will. This is as true in the world of pop culture, as it is in the world of business and leadership styles.

Leadership styles and leadership theories may vary, and people can have their own unique approaches – often built around their personal values, life story and general management style. But all of the leadership theories in the world can’t help you if you can’t harness your own power and lead with authority and authenticity.

What are the traits of authentic leaders?

Self-awareness:

A leader caught up in their own self-interest is really no more a leader than they are a walking ego. Their own internalized moral perspective may be entirely skewed based on leadership skills they may think they possess.

A leader whose moral compass only points one direction has no organizational commitment, no core values and is entirely driven by their own emotions and personal histories. Being brash and uncaring is not a trait of authentic leadership.

Emotional intelligence

Possessing and displaying emotional intelligence is a true representation of one’s authentic self. Emotional intelligence can manifest itself in many ways. One such example is in the way a leader receives and reacts to feedback. An effective leader can take honest feedback and react to it rationally, for the greater good.

An emotionally-driven leader may take feedback as a personal or professional insult. This is a dangerous precedent, as it sets the tone for the organizational behaviour of an entire business.

Consistency

Like transparency, this too sets the tone for an organisation. It is one of the key leadership behaviours that any authentic leader must convey. Authentic leaders must be consistent in everything they do. Be it praise or punishment, and everything in-between. For an authentic leader, there can be no sliding scale when it comes to consistency in leadership.

This boils down to a matter of trust. Leaders who are perceived as inconsistent, are not trusted by their peers and employees in the same way that their more consistent counterparts a

Good listener

To be an authentic leader, you must also be a good listener. Even if the discussion throws up contradictory viewpoints. Great leaders are the ones who are willing to reconsider their own views, based on the advice and opinions of others.

Integrity

None of the above work without integrity. This is probably the most crucial leadership skill to possess and arguably impossible to teach. Without integrity, there can be no authentic leadership. Make no mistake, integrity is a learned trait. Leaders are not just born as moral bastions, they develop integrity through their experiences and exposure to others.

This is why it is important for those in mentorship positions to place a major onus on developing and focusing on integrity. Because, if an example is not set, or if toxic behaviours are not called out and corrected, then negative leadership behaviours can be left to form.

Over time these become more and more baked in, traits become harder to shift, not only to negative reputations than become set in stone, damaging business. But they also then sow the seeds to younger generations, that this is somehow acceptable. Thus continuing the problem.

What are the key components of authentic leadership?

Ethical leadership

A leader’s authenticity lives and dies in the ethical behaviour of that individual. A leader who displays no ethical behaviour will, invariably, be treated differently than one who does. Unethical leadership can cause rampant distrust throughout an entire organisation because the leader has set the tone.

On the contrary, a leader who openly displays a moral compass that points in the right direction will find more trust and endearment amongst their co-workers and employees.

Personal growth

 This is vital to authentic leadership and to employee job satisfaction. Leaders who openly champion and empower growth, have a magnetism about them, pulling people into their gravity. Not only empowering those around them but creating a sense of belonging and a willingness from employees to follow their instructions.

Lead with purpose and vision… and people will follow you.

Professional development

Authentic leaders take personal growth and professional development hand in hand. An authentic leader will have one hand on the wheel of their team members’ development, helping them through challenges while empowering them to be better team members.

Lead with vision

Authentic leaders lead with vision. A successful leader is one whose blue-sky thinking and strategy can take an entire organisation and transform it into something truly special. However, authentic leaders can only achieve authentic leadership through honesty.

Transparency

This is a bedrock of authentic leadership theory. Transparency from a leadership role sets the tone for the entire organization. The modern authentic leader is now formed in a very different mould, to that of 30 or so years ago. Previously organisational transparency would have been a no-no. With leadership groups adopting more clandestine and secretive behaviours.

Embrace authentic leadership and positive forms. Adopt an open palm approach, in favour of a closed fist.

Examples of authentic leaders 

Michael Jordan

 

what is authentic leadership: Michael Jordan

There’s a reason why people refer to exception people, whatever the industry, as the Michael Jordan of their field. This was a man so good at what he did, he transcended the game he played.

He was never afraid to put everything on the line to achieve his goals, and he was relentlessly open about it. His famous line of “I never asked anyone to do anything, that I wouldn’t do myself.” epitomises his style.

Bill Gates

 

what is authentic leadership: Bill Gates

Bill Gates has often demonstrated the utmost levels of vision, decision-making, team-building, passion, and strength of character, which are within the meaning of authentic leadership theory.

Oprah Winfrey

 

what is authentic leadership: Oprah Winfrey

What is most intriguing about Oprah Winfrey, is that she doesn’t wield power and influence because she has money; she has money because she knew how to wield her power and influence.

A mogul and unicorn in every sense of the word, Oprah Winfrey is an actor, talk show host, producer, publisher and executive all wrapped up in one.  Her style has always been her own, her mannerism is totally inimitable. Which defines authentic leadership.

Because she is entirely authentic and her own woman in each and everything she does.

Volodymyr Zelensky

 

what is authentic leadership: Zelensky

The atrocities in Ukraine have been harrowing to witness. It’s people, hardy and staunch under the most unimaginable of circumstances.

Standing at the breach of this, is the country’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky. A man who has shown himself to possess truly authentic leadership.

Zelensky has proved himself to be a self-aware, compassionate and truly authentic crisis-time leader.

Authentic leaders and politicians are a rare combination. But his origins are not like any politician of modern times. A former comedian seems a far cry away from the role he is currently filling. However, his distinct qualities have been on show for the world to see.

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg

 

what is authentic leadership: Ruth Bader-Ginsburg

The Notorious RGB, as she was fondly known. Never has a politician, male or female of any nationality, risen to such a cultural zeitgeist as RBG. She is a paragon of authentic leadership.

A committed advocate, strategist and collaborative leader. It was RBG’s ethical behaviour and moral perspective, not to mention her own personal story which formed her legend. A woman who was unequivocally and unabashedly authentic in every sense of the world. As a servant of her nation, her’s was transformational leadership, which even among the most authentic leaders, is a rare trait.

 

Examples of bad leaders

Martin Winterkorn

The former CEO of Volkswagen set at the helm of the German automotive giant during one of its darkest times. Winterkorn oversaw the emissions scandal, which saw Volkswagen hit hard for unethically and illegally installing software within its vehicles, which failed to accurately report the vehicles’ emissions.

Where Winterkorn’s leadership style comes into question, is in the reports that his exacting standards, combined with a proclivity for publicly calling out and berating employees on their mistakes, contributed to a problematic culture within the organisation. When compared with the predecessor, the esteemed engineer Ferdinand Piech, the two premierships read like night and day.

Piech, a highly accomplished automotive engineer, sought a harmonious and collaborative approach. He would work with engineers to point out flaws and work to improve them. an approach that fostered a culture of innovation. Just a few years later, Winterkorn would be in charge. Displaying negative leadership behaviours famously he would stalk the factories with gauges to measure the gaps in car doors and would publicly berate employees.

Despite claiming to have not been aware of the fabrications being made around emissions, Winterkorn was ordered to pay Volkswagen around 11 million euros for major breaches in due diligence.

Elizabeth Holmes

The former Silicon Valley wunderkind is a prime example of how greed and dishonesty do not make for a positive leadership mix. The golden goose turned out to be little more than a pigeon, wrapped in tin foil. Theranos claimed to be able to run a myriad of blood tests, and diagnose a multitude of conditions all from a single drop of blood. It could not.

The business was built upon a lie and a lie that was formed and propagated entirely by Holmes. At one point she seemingly had the world at her feet. The company was valued at $9 billion dollars and she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. However, an investigative report into the activity of Holmes and Theranos would soon start to sow the seed of doubt. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) claimed that Holmes had misled both the government and the public about the efficacy of her product.

Holmes doubled down, defending herself and accusing the WSJ of shoddy reporting. but further interviews would start to reveal a hedgy Holmes, who would dodge and weave questions around the effectiveness of Theranos. Holmes would be brought under oath, where previous statements and falsehoods would prove entirely out of alignment with one other. it wasn’t long until the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.

Following one of the most high profile trials that Silicon Valley had ever seen, in January of 2021, Holmes was found guilty of 11 federal charges, including defrauding investors and three counts of wire fraud tied to specific investors. She currently faces up to 20 years in prison, plus restitution for each count.

David Brent / Michael Scott

Yes, these are two fictional characters, but they represent perfectly a certain kind of oafish, misguided leadership style. There are certainly few authentic leadership characteristics that show effective leadership styles! Brent and Scott are two of the most notorious bad leaders in popular culture. Those reading this will no doubt recall a litany of faux-pas and awkward situations caused by these two hapless leaders.

As we’ve said, a good leader requires self-awareness… this is something neither of these two possess. But being self-aware is not the only flaw with these ‘office clowns.’ As neither display exemplary leadership behaviours.

It’s true neither of these individuals is a bad person, in fact, both show moments of genuine care and consideration towards their employees. But there aren’t enough of these moments to outweigh the groundswell of unprofessional and inappropriate moments. What makes these two fail in the authentic leadership stakes, is that both are too caught up in their relentless journey to be loved and adored, to a point where neither recognises their own position or that their own decisions and actions have consequences for those around them.

Being an authentic leader… how to develop an authentic leadership style?

There are no restrictions on authentic leadership development. At a fundamental level, this practice involves awareness. Taking a moment for reflection is the best way. It helps you to acknowledge your interests and objectives and shows the ways in which they are aligned with your team’s interests and understands their importance.

Identify your values

Identify your core values to ensure your organization is committed to its mission. You are capable of a good leadership path if you are doing work that you believe in. If we understand the values in our business, we can help improve our leadership skills. Your words are important so that everyone understands your beliefs. This helps people trust you as their trusted leader.

Relate to your team

We should learn from the people who work for us, from the executive board to the factory floor. Spend some time researching their life experiences, hobbies and goals. Build your own understanding of those around you.

Sharing personal and professional data builds stronger relationships and enhances employee relationships. Authentic leadership uses life experience to apply ideas to the people who have worked with them. A few people have generously praised their colleagues when they deserve it.

Lead by example

Authentic leaders establish good precedents and lead by example. Having your deadlines and your expectations set the standard in the industry is an important example of the right working practices. These are models of authentic leadership theory.

Having an understanding of your business is important in gaining employees’ trust. When you demonstrate your willingness to take up work other people are not interested in doing, this shows responsibility. Leading in the footsteps of others can help you build a good relationship with others. Plus, motivating your team to believe in their efforts is the key to becoming authentic leaders.

Polish your communication skills

A good leader can communicate well with their colleagues. Think through the process of becoming more attentive and offering constructive feedback, are you displaying relational transparency?

Good writing and speaking skills are important along with your storytelling ability. Authentic leaders can reply quickly when emails or messages are received. Make sure you answer your questions quickly so you can improve your workflow.

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