To thine own self be true…


How truthfully can you say that you bring your whole authentic self to work every day and that your team gets to see who you really are?

Research shows that most of us actually have two sides to our personality. The side that we show at home around our family and friends and the side that we bring to work. So many of us feel that we cannot be our authentic selves at work because of societal norms and constructs telling us we have to “be” a certain way when we reach managerial and leadership levels. We feel pressure to match our personality to our role so we change how we act to fit in with other leaders and managers, to gain more recognition or respect and to assert ourselves over our team members. Managers and leaders are supposed to be inspiring, productive and effective and to be successful we are led to believe that this requires us to be, act, do things that may be different from how we are.

There is a perceived level of expectation around what a great leader should do and how they should behave. These expected norms can create myths about leadership being inspirational, exhibiting unrelenting confidence, having unwavering decision making, showing unshakeable self-belief and revealing no signs of personal weakness. In authentic leadership, whilst some of these may well help in the execution of the role, the real test is somewhat more grounded.

Do we really have to present ourselves as per these perceived ideas to be defined as a successful leader?

What is Authentic Leadership?

The term Authentic Leadership was made popular in 2003 by Bill George’s book of the same name. It’s become a bit overused since then but there are some concepts and ideas behind the jargon that can help leaders lead people with a sense of self-awareness, honesty and passion.

For the purposes of this article, I really liked this definition:

At its most basic level, authenticity means being genuine – not a replica, not a copy or imitation.
In leadership being genuine implies that we are embodying our true selves into our leadership role. Being true to ourselves calls us to draw on the very essence of our values, beliefs, principles, morals and that all of these create our ‘guiding compass’ in the job. Not somebody else’s compass – our own! Authentic leadership holds making the most of our strengths, recognising and trading off our weaknesses and taking full self-accountability for the impact we have on others. What authentic leadership is not about is adopting the styles or traits of other leaders.

Steve Robinson

What does Authentic Leadership look like?

Given that the foundation is authenticity, this will look different for every person however, there are three specific and common traits that can be identified amongst authentic leaders.

Authentic leaders continually commit to their own learning in order to understand themselves as a person, how they see the world, and how this relates to others and how they see the world around them.

Deep self-awareness is the foundation here and it’s a lifelong journey of learning from experiences and sharing these openly and honestly along the way. They connect by telling stories of success and defeat. They have defined and truly live their values. They know who they are, what they believe in and what the right thing to do is. Their values are often all that leaders have to help them navigate the uncertainty of change.

Authentic leaders have an ability to get their ego out of the way to truly empower and develop others.

‘Big ego leadership’ lies at the opposite end of the continuum to authentic leadership. Authentic leadership holds out the first and foremost principle, ‘it’s not about me’. Big ego leadership is an outdated construct. It intimidates people, stops them from being totally honest for fear of the repercussions and creates and environment of distrust. Authentic leadership on the other hand creates the environment for trust to grow. Letting go of the big ego doesn’t mean you have to get rid of self-confidence. It does mean you have to think of others first though. Great leaders eat last as Simon Sinek would say.

Authentic leaders influence and inspire others by revealing their vulnerability and humaness. When they ‘lift their veil’ and reveal their true selves, authentic leaders transfer humility, credibility and trust to those around them. They generate believability by being ‘human’. People follow them and respect them not because of their power or position – but through compelling influence. Authentic leaders demonstrate vulnerability and understand that it is a strength not a weakness.

Authentic leadership is continuously tested in a world increasingly impatient for results and demanding immediate outcomes. The pressures of instant delivery versus longer-term desirable outcomes are a true leadership tension in itself. Authentic leaders don’t react to that pressure. Instead they know what they can and can’t compromise on in the short term because of how the longer-term outcome will be impacted. Authentic leaders focus on the longer-term goals and align their personal values to develop future leaders to build sustainable successful organisations.

Complexity will only increase around technical, economic, financial and social issues in the world and when we add in the very ethical, moral and consciousness testing dilemmas, that complexity will be exponential. The rampant pace of change today requires agility, flexibility and adaptability of leadership styles and approaches to an ever- changing landscape. Yet most organisations still maintain the constructs of yesteryear. There are so many toxic environments that people have to work in that it is no wonder we have decreasing productivity and an ever increasing volume of burnout, mental health issues and let’s not forget the age of the Great Resignation like we are currently experiencing. People are tired of the old attitudes and constructs of success. If the Pandemic has brought us new ways of working then surely we also need to adapt how we lead people?

When was the last time the leadership model or success measures in your organisation were adapted to the world we currently find ourselves in? As a Leader what changes will you commit to making? When will you make them by? Let me know in the comments below.

  1. […] what you do. Be authentic in your interactions. You can learn more here about authentic leadership here. Treat others with kindness and empathy. Neither hurt to give but go a long way to building trust […]

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