How to become an Authentic Leader

As independent coaches, we’re often seen as a useful resource to bring in when every other internal remedy has failed, a final port of call for people the organisation is struggling with. They frequently ask us to deal with problem issues, or difficult people. Sometimes it’s a very blunt “can you ‘fix’ this person, we want her to be different!” or “Sort him out, so he can progress in the organisation”. More often it’s “Can you work with a couple of our emerging leaders?”, where inexperienced leaders need to acquire more gravitas.

The thing is, there’s no quick fix. And we don’t believe in ‘fixing’ people anyway. We believe in three positive things. Here they are.

Awareness is the perfect starting point

Awareness is the starting point. People are resourceful, and they’re happiest and most effective when being true to themselves. Thus, in any intervention we make, in any work we undertake, everything starts with awareness: what’s going on for them right here, right now? Once we’ve established that as a baseline, we help our clients understand and build on what they’re good at and, just as importantly, the things they find much harder. We help them be true to themselves, in other words be aware, play to their strengths, and remain ‘authentic’.

Our role as coaches is to help people reconnect with the source of their own resourcefulness, and draw on it to become more effective. Once someone knows themselves, affirms their distinctiveness, and recognises their blocks and limitations, they’re beginning to function as an ‘authentic leader’. It’s a great start.

Be yourself more… with skill

The ‘be-yourself more with skill’ approach comes from two English Academics, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. They’ve both researched and written about what makes effective leaders, and we like what they say.

Goffee and Jones kick off by affirming the commonplaces of leadership: effective leaders – in other words inspirational leaders – need vision, energy, authority, and strategic direction. So far, so simple. But Goffee and Jones’ research took them in unexpected directions, in particular suggesting that exceptional leaders always have four defining characteristics:

  1. They’re willing to be vulnerable, having a strong sense of humanity about them that accepts they are not perfect. This means they can selectively let those around them see their weaknesses.
  2. They are great sense-makers, people who use finely-honed intuition to read and interpret the world around them. They gauge courses of action and timing using soft data like their gut feelings and instincts, which makes them decisive without being cavalier.
  3. They are tough-minded and tender-hearted thanks to significant Emotional Intelligence (EQ), able to easily empathise with their people while insisting on decisions, action and results.
  4. They celebrate and affirm what makes them different, giving permission for everyone around them to own and affirm their uniqueness.

The research Goffee and Jones conducted confirms that great leaders, exceptional leaders, inspirational leaders all have these four traits in abundance. True, each leader will have them in differing proportions, and differing contexts require a different blend, but they all demonstrate these traits and live by them. You can read the full article here.

True North – Discover your authentic leadership

As an excellent Harvard Business Review article by Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer, Discovering Your Authentic Leadership, says:

“Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to developing yourself. Like musicians and athletes, you must devote yourself to a lifetime of realizing your potential.”

Bill George himself, who is also author of the book True North: Discover your Authentic Leadership, agrees, saying that True North is your internal compass, you as a human being at your deepest level. It is your orienting point and your fixed point in a spinning world.

In his view five core attributes characterise authentic leaders:

  1. Full of purpose with passion – Without a real sense of purpose, leaders are at prone to be dominated by their egos and develop narcissistic vulnerabilities.
  2. Values-led in the way they live and work – Authentic Leaders are defined by their values, and those values are personal and distinctive to them.
  3. Sensitive to the emotions of others, leading with the heart – Authentic leaders use their heads, but temper the hardness of rationality with genuine empathy.
  4. Relational – Authentic leaders are really good at establishing enduring relationships.
  5. Self-disciplined – Authentic leaders know that competing successfully and producing results takes a consistently high level of self-discipline.

It’s interesting to see how similar this is to Goffee and Jones’ list.

Telling an authentic story

Bill George also links the ability to be an authentic leader with the way leaders tell their stories:

The journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life. Your life story provides the context for your experiences, and through it, you can find the inspiration to make an impact in the world. As the novelist John Barth once wrote, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” In other words, it is your personal narrative that matters, not the mere facts of your life. Your life narrative is like a permanent recording playing in your head. Over and over, you replay the events and personal interactions that are important to your life, attempting to make sense of them to find your place in the world.”

For George, the starting point for all this is self-awareness. This is the first and vital step towards understanding the story of your life so far and to all the is happening for you as a leader right in now.

Dynamic identities – making continual sense of our experience

Our own thinking on authenticity is also influenced by Charles Guignon’s masterful short book On Being Authentic (Routledge, 2004). His study attempts to wrest authenticity away from an individualistic perspective of self. He makes it broader and more socially relevant.

Guignon introduces the dimension of what ‘story-shaped’ selves might look like, suggesting that personal identity isn’t a mere static self-sameness that endures, unchanging, over time. It’s actually much more dynamic, a more on-going and open-ended way of continually interacting and relating to those around you and your environment. The ‘I-ness’ I experience over time is a coherence, and a unity I create by the way I make sense of my experience, and by the way I talk about it with myself, and most importantly with others.

We also like the way Guignon talks about living out a story over the course of time. Authentic leaders need to live out the story of their team or organisation over time. The leader starts the story, then co-creates a new reality with the people around them. Of course the story has to have real substance, as well as a distinctive presence and tone. But it is shaped by the leader and then shaped further through the people they lead.

Being an authentic leader means knowing what you stand for and telling your story with simple honesty and transparency. In his book The Leaders Guide to Storytelling, Stephen Denning says:

Because you communicate who you are and what you stand for, others come to know you and respect you for that. Because you are attentive to the world as it is, your ideas are sound. Because you speak the truth, you are believed. Because you make your values explicit and your actions are consistent with those values, your values become contagious and others start to share them. Because you listen to the world the world listens to you. Because you are open to innovation, happy accidents happen. Because you bring meaning to the world of work, you are able to get superior results.
Stephen Denning – The Leaders Guide to Storytelling

Dynamic identities – making continual sense of our experience

Social Psychologist Brené Brown believes authentic leadership includes a willingness to be vulnerable. She writes:

You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness”.

Authentic leaders walk inside and own their stories. And when we own our faults and failings as well as our triumphs and our successes, we and those we work with flourish too:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Can you become an authentic leader?

Becoming an authentic leader isn’t about being invincible and invulnerable. Although it is about courage. It means incorporating and sometimes, daringly sharing your vulnerabilities so others can accept theirs. It is about being real. Together we learn how to complement each other to get the job done. Again, Brené puts it so well:

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
(Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are).

If you’re wondering about your own capacity for being authentic and would like to explore what it might mean to you, to ‘be yourself-more-with skill.’ Get in touch to discuss our Leadership Coaching – we’ll be pleased to hear from you.