The TRUTH About Authentic Leadership (Don’t Believe the Hype)

Whenever you hear the term leadership, you might connect it with several characteristics. One of those characteristics that shows up often is authenticity.

In this article, I’m going to share with you the truth about authentic leadership and address some challenges that are commonly associated with it.

Why Authenticity Doesn’t Always Work?

Authenticity sounds great on paper and in marketing, but in reality, it can get tricky. According to Harvard Business Review, authenticity became a gold standard for leadership over the past decade. The challenge they added to that claim is that basic understanding of it can cause negative effects and limit leadership growth.

Here’s how that translates into an actual life situation. Authenticity can put you in a position where you should be true to yourself and others. What if your true self isn’t the best you can offer to your people? The key differentiator is to understand what makes you YOU. That means the good, the bad, and the ugly.

If you try to stick only to your values, you will create a rigid environment. This happens because we often try to get away from things that need improvement.

I always remember some figures I admired growing up, thinking that’s what it means being a leader. There’s this tough person who puts their foot down and says: “This is how it’s done”, without backing out or allowing space for change.

The Challenge with True Authenticity

The challenge with true authenticity starts right here. Authentic leaders need to keep their feet firmly planted to the ground, right? Well, yes, and no. You will need to be decisive and stay true to your core values. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expose your vulnerabilities.

If you’re not good at something, faking it until you make it would make you an inauthentic leader. Success doesn’t come from just pushing forward. Sometimes you need to stop and look around yourself, see where your people are and how you can help them move forward with you.

Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders at all levels of the organization. I found that sometimes, there’s a notion where authenticity is synonymized with pride. Yes, you should be proud of the things you do. However, be really cautious, as there’s a fine line between pride and ego. There’s also this idea of originality from the dictionary definitions of authenticity. Just have in mind that no matter how much we believe what we do is original, we are often the result of accumulated experiences, our own, and from other people.

All this leads to situations where authenticity can fail leaders. For example, starting a new role in an unfamiliar environment, promoting new ideas, and taking on feedback, to name a few. Every one of these points will question and challenge your true self and, if you stick to your rigid beliefs, you are undoing everything you worked for as a leader.

Can Authentic Leadership be Sustainable?

What does that mean to you? Can authentic leadership be sustainable? In her book Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You, published in 2012, author Betsy Myers tells an interesting story. During the 2006 conference held at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, she observed a rising pattern.

Based on her observations of dozens of CEOs and thought leaders, three core beliefs kept on reappearing. Self-reflection, willingness to ask questions, and how they make people around them feel.

She wrote: “Leadership is about how you make people feel—about you, about the project or work you’re doing together, and especially about themselves”. This results in a long-term development of leaders and their teams and can transform authenticity to a sustainable practice.

Is Adaptive Authenticity a Solution?

We’ve established authenticity doesn’t always work and that there are some challenges with it. Through research, we’ve discovered there’s a potential for making authentic leadership sustainable. Is there a key to overcoming challenges and making all this happen?

Yes! We’ll borrow the way of thinking from software development and Agile methodology. Developers work on projects and tasks, communicate, and interact with their team members, and test things out often. This gives them the needed experience to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

You might wonder how this translates into authenticity. The ability to be agile and adjust enables leaders to be ADAPTIVELY AUTHENTIC.

Being adaptive won’t interfere with your core values and beliefs and what you stand for. On the contrary, it will enable you to grow and develop over time. There are many ways to make this adaptive authenticity real. I’ve compiled 8 actionable steps you can take today and become an adaptively authentic leader.

1. Develop self-awareness

No matter which characteristics or skills in leadership I talk about, I always reference self-awareness. Understanding self is a crucial step before understanding others. This includes your values, strengths, and areas for improvement. When you recognize those and pair them with understanding that there’s no one right way to lead, you’ll be able to step toward true authenticity.

2. Be true to yourself

I often ponder on this statement. If you are constantly growing as a leader, it may seem difficult to stay true to yourself, as your old self is not the same as today’s self. If we aspire to become better versions of ourselves in the future, does it make authenticity even more challenging? No, it doesn’t. It just shows the importance of adaptive authenticity, as your true self develops over time.

3. Be true to your values

Values of an individual might seem like something deeply ingrained. Yes, they should be embedded into who you are. Yet, they are open to change over time. This can happen for different reasons, as we go through stages in our personal and professional life. Our priorities can change, direction in life can change. The values you hold true can change priority, but they should always stay. Values like commitment, service, humility, honesty, and alike.

4. Learn to connect

As a leader, you will be exposed to different situations and different groups of people. Each of those situations will require you to establish a connection. That can be with one person or with dozens of people. By having the capacity to connect it allows you to align with people. Align your words, actions, and emotions. That further complements your road to adaptive authenticity.

5. Develop active listening skills

I can’t stop emphasizing this. Active listening is a power skill of the 21st century. It was an important skill before, but now, it’s more crucial than ever. With so much noise surrounding us all the time, having the ability to distinguish value from noise will make you more authentic and a better learner.

6. Focus on the long-term

Bill George, Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School and the author of the book Discover Your True North, pointed out that all successful authentic leaders are always focusing on the long-term value. This can be for internal and external shareholders. As he said: “No individual achievement can equal the pleasure of leading a group of people to achieve a worthy goal. When you cross the finish line together, there’s a deep satisfaction that it was your leadership that made the difference. There’s simply nothing that can compare with that.”

7. Keep requesting feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions. I love feedback. Proper feedback. That means a person providing insights shows what needs improvement, why it’s important, and how to do it. As an authentic leader, keep seeking feedback. It will help you better serve your people, work on areas of improvement, and ultimately, develop adaptable authenticity.

8. Continue developing

What got you here won’t get you there. I’m paraphrasing Marshall Goldsmith on this one. As a leader, you went through challenges, overcame obstacles, and became a better version of yourself. It’s vital to continue developing as you grow and mature as a leader. Every new opportunity can bring you to the next level and affect your authenticity in a good way. Growth and evolution enable the adaptability of your authenticity.

Conclusion

Becoming an adaptively authentic leader is a journey that takes time and effort. It’s something you have to work on every day, but the benefits are worth it. When you develop self-awareness, be true to yourself and your values, learn how to connect with others, and focus on the long-term, you set the stage for success.

But it doesn’t stop there. You also need to keep requesting feedback and continue developing as a leader. With these skills in your toolkit, you can become the type of leader people want to follow—someone who is authentic, trustworthy, and inspires greatness in those around them.

It is also leading you away from becoming a toxic leader. To know more on how to avoid toxic behavior in leadership, check out the article below. In it, I share 6 ways to overcome and eventually avoid toxic behavior in leadership.

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John Todorovic

John Todorovic

I help aspiring and existing leaders improve their skills through effective coaching.

As a restless knowledge seeker, I love acquiring new knowledge on a daily basis through various types of research techniques. All this aligns with my life's mission: sharing knowledge is a privilege and an obligation.

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