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What is authentic leadership?
Authentic leaders have a deep understanding of their personal values and ethical principles, and are self-aware enough to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being easily pulled by impulse and trends, authentic leaders are guided by their own internal compass – a compass based on integrity, created from curious self-reflection.
Authentic leadership requires the ability to process feedback without a defensive attitude and with extreme objectivity. Besides being open to feedback, authentic leaders can process negative input in a non-defensive way. They walk the talk, are insistently transparent, and refuse to misrepresent their motives or manipulate information.
This is important because research shows that creating a culture based on authenticity increases employee engagement, creativity, and trust. Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, has talked repeatedly about the importance of authenticity, describing it as creating a culture where people are encouraged to be present and honest about their own strengths and weaknesses. Creating a more authentic culture at Aetna has resulted in measured drops in employee stress, higher productivity and significant cost-savings.
What gets in the way of authenticity?
The simple answer is a lack of authentic leadership. It’s tempting to give in to the fear that telling the whole truth – especially the grey areas – might hinder productivity and effectiveness. In fact, the opposite is true. Every person in every organization knows or suspects that there are trade-offs, challenges, and risks being taken daily. Keeping information behind the curtain is a practice that only creates uncertainty, anxiety, and mistrust – a dangerous situation that can easily deprive leaders and their teams of the capacity to deal with challenges.
In truth, I’m not certain that it’s possible to create an organizational culture in which people can be authentic without also fostering ownership. Likewise, it seems to me that encouraging ownership requires a culture based on authenticity. Why? Because authenticity helps leaders do the right thing. After all, ethical conduct has less to do with moral intentions than self-control.
When leaders are firmly rooted in their own personal values, they are less likely to rationalize shortcuts, shady decisions, and potential conflicts of interest. These leaders are not only more honest about the challenges and constraints they know about, but are more likely to encourage their people to do the same. This kind of environment creates the sort of social accountability required for ownership.
Authenticity is a learned skill that requires choice and effort.
To that end, here are 3 questions that leaders might consider…
What am I about? If authenticity is your goal, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. The only “right” answer is the raw, honest, truth. You are not your role or title. You are you in this moment, and even if there are things about you that you’d like to change or improve, you can only do so by starting with the truth of who you are right now. This takes tremendous courage because it requires us to look at our most subtle motivations, aspirations, fears, and priorities. What are you about right now, today, in this moment, and how can the acknowledgment of that truth inform how you lead?
What do you value? “Values” is one of those words that gets used so often, I fear it loses its meaning at times. But understanding what you value is more than an abstract exercise in ethics. It’s not about what the outside world says you “should” do and how you “ought” to act? It’s about the truth of what you really, truly value. Freedom? Creativity? Power? Money? Hard work? Work-life balance? Whatever the answer, authentic leadership requires an honest answer.
Is my behavior in line with my aspirations? It’s common for leaders to have a disconnect between what they aspire to and what they actually do. Just wanting to do something, or be something, doesn’t guarantee that we’ll do what it takes to get there. This is true on a personal level, and true throughout our entire organization. A culture of authenticity requires a constant assessment of this question – honest answers not only about what we want but about what we are willing to do to make it happen.
Authenticity is both a decision and a learned skill. It requires practice and experience, not abstract theory. What is standing in the way of you leading with a higher level of authenticity?