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Making Authentic Leadership Work for Everyone

Over the past several years I’ve noticed more and more leaders share a perspective that to be great leaders, they must lead authentically, and that being our true and genuine selves is the gold standard. The underlying belief is that if we can be ourselves without having to adapt to each situation or circumstance, we won’t compromise our character. Overall, being yourself is a GOOD thing—we want leaders to be themselves at work. However, in trying this on and figuring out what it means to be authentic, there is more to it than your own authenticity.


In fact, trying to lead authentically can fall short in certain situations. When authenticity translates as not having to change based on circumstance, poor leadership can arise. In reality, there are always expectations, situations, and circumstances that require you to adapt as a leader instead of doing what feels “natural” or “authentic” at the time. Taken too far, the idea of authenticity can inhibit our ability to change, grow, and move beyond our comfort zone as leaders.


Authenticity in Leadership

Bill George, professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and pioneer of authentic leadership, believes that leadership is about recognizing your strengths and limitations and building upon them, rather than trying to become a different person to fit a certain criteria. Authentic leadership includes acknowledging the needs of others and working toward addressing those needs to serve your organization through leadership. Authentic Leaders spend a significant amount of time thinking about those needs and bringing solutions to life through their action and behavior.


How Authenticity Can Go Wrong

In an attempt to “be themselves,” leaders may focus too heavily on their own preferences and behaviors. This leads to making mistakes, taking the wrong steps, or leaving out a couple of key things.


First, they skip the part where they define an aspirational version of their own leadership. The risk here is that  instead of growing toward who they want to be (in alignment with their goals, values, and strengths), these leaders accept a default path based on who they’ve been, what other think and the circumstances around them. This can ultimately result in leaders finding themselves in situations where they are no longer successful or growing.


Second, they may forget the needs of others. Their desire to live and lead authentically overshadows others, leading to the justification of poor behavior, feelings of resentment and disrespect on the part of others, and potentially toxic work environments. I’ve seen leaders lean so far into who they are that they are unaware of how they are affecting those around them. Their peers are scrambling to adapt, and in the process, losing their own autonomy and authenticity. And ultimately, effectiveness suffers across the team.


Putting Authenticity to Work

If you find yourself in a situation where this could be you, what should you do?

  1. Set aside some time for reflection. Create a clear understanding of your aspirational self. Who do you want to be, and what are your values? Why is your aspirational self important to you?
  2. Understand where you are today. There are two parts to this. Start by getting an understanding of your Super Powers. What are the things that make you unique and special? This is what you want to leverage to bring your aspirational self to life. Next, look at where there is a gap between your apirational self and how you are showing up today. It’s okay to be honest and vulnerable with yourself. It takes courage, but it’s the only way to make true change. For this step, you may want to elicit structured feedback in the form of feedback sessions with your peers. Both your self-perception and reflections from others are critical to gaining a full picture.
  3. Work toward understanding the needs of others. If you don’t know their needs, then ASK. Even if you believe you understand the needs of others, you should still ask. You may not understand everything you could about what is possible.
  4. Pick an area (or two) where you want to learn and grow. If you need extra support, find a coach or a mentor, or even discuss your goals and aspirations with a trusted advisor or peer.


I’m sure you’ve noticed a theme around asking for input on this journey. Creating a culture of feedback where you have an ongoing dialogue about how you lead supports both the growth of your team’s authenticity as well as your own. Authentic leaders need to seek honest feedback, not only from colleagues, but from friends, family members, and others who can provide insight on their leadership. Be humble, grow, and learn to meet others where they are.  


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