Leadership Authenticity: A Prescription for Personal Growth

Much is written about authentic leaders – those who “inspire others to act” or who are “capable of building trust” – yet precious little is offered up as instruction in how to become authentic.

Clearly, followers hunger for authenticity.  It is the quality that drives our productivity and harmony in our relationships, determines whom we believe, how we feel and act. As but one example, we prefer to vote for political candidates we deem to be authentic.

Authenticity is directly correlated with a sense of self-respect and well being.  Acting in accordance with our self-concept, a trait called self-determination, is a basic psychological need. According to Daniel Goleman, it is a requisite ingredient in emotional intelligence, the immutable repository of our identities.

According to Psychology Today magazine, “authenticity is something too intangible to measure objectively.” Yet, for the term itself to have authenticity, it must be capable of having identifiable, concrete components. Clearly, the first and most fundamental of these must be self-awareness – a knowledge of and trust in one’s own motives, emotions, preferences and capabilities. Authenticity requires an acknowledgment of both personal strengths and weaknesses. It means acting in a manner congruent with one’s values.

Do leaders learn (or invent) their authenticity or do they discover it?  Depends on your point of view. Every school of philosophical thought offers a different answer. Today’s psychologists argue that our notion of selfhood needs to encompass multiple realities and ever-shifting perspectives. One reason for these differing opinions is that accurate self-knowledge, and our attempts to reconcile it with life’s circumstances, can be rather painful and (as a consequence) biased. After all, it is human to rationalize our weaknesses. Which is why, surely, authenticity requires accurate self-diagnosis. Without it, there is no possibility of making informed choices about your future (or, for that matter, about the direction and destiny of your organization).

Authenticity requires an unraveling of the mystery of selfhood – critically examining our assumptions, beliefs and learned mental maps about what constitutes responsibility and accountability, satisfaction and happiness, success and failure. And learning from the reflection and conclusions.

How do leaders develop an authentic approach  to their lives and their business challenges? Here are some suggestions:

  • See your actions as the sum of choices and consequences.  All behaviour involves a choice; even doing nothing is a choice. You can choose to change the situation, get away from it or change how you think about it. You can control yourself or be controlled by others. Each of us is the architect of our own discontent or our personal happiness. The continuous subordination of one’s needs to others fosters resentment, remorse and mental dis-ease (from internal stress to depression). The choices, and the consequences, are therefore entirely yours.
  • When in doubt, go with your gut.  This advice is backed by a growing body of research from cognitive psychology and other fields. Intuition or instinct or “learning without awareness” (or whatever you want to call it) is a real form of knowledge. The practical implications are profound. People who make decisions for a living have realized that, in complex or chaotic situations such as today’s brutally competitive business environment, intuition usually beats rational analysis. Intuition is not a gift but rather a skill you can learn. To do so, you must first get over the fact that it contradicts everything you’ve ever been taught about making decisions.
  • Learn to “get away” from the day-to-day pressures  for genuine reflection. Relaxation and personal quiet time create moments for deliberate enquiry and creative cognition. Quiet time for the self is critical for developing one’s authentic self. Try to figure out what’s in your head and you will much better understand what’s in the heads of others. Take the time to read widely on topics that clearly stretch and challenge your mind, then weigh the rational and emotional stimulation that ensues.
  • See failure as learning.  Accept the contradictions and discomfort of your faults and judge them as clues to your complex, ever changing self. As every great leader knows, adversity strengthens character. Be realistic – don’t get defensive or blame others for your mistakes. If you are leading a full life and taking risks, you are going to fail in some way. It is the price and the promise of leadership.
  • Stay connected with those that count.  No one can do it on their own. Leaders know how to make the best of the help available; they are shrewd and discerning in how they do it. No one is objective, informed, tough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do, how to do it or what is necessary. While many sources of counsel may be available, getting the right advice in the right way at the right time should be a matter of design, not good fortune. This is especially important when leaders must make uncertain choices with profound consequences. This requires savvy tradeoffs. So learn how to take advice. Solicit help that is actionable, timely and sustainable. Openness to feedback is the only route to greater self-knowledge and thus the authentic self.

Authenticity is more than this.  But these thoughts are surely among the critical steps one needs to take along the path toward being a smart leader. The self is fluid, dynamic and complex. Its nourishment requires breaking with the routine, replacing the power of habit with the power of focus. It means listening to oneself and trusting one’s moral compass to guide decisions and behaviours.