The Importance of being Authentic

Discover your Inner Leader

As a high achiever, Brendan was also a demanding driver and overly-directive in his treatment of others. In our coaching sessions, although subscribing to this pacesetting and somewhat commanding style, he also alluded to a deeper self that was compassionate, caring and community-minded. These two sides of Brendan as a person and as a leader never seemed to blend very well. His public image as a hard-nosed, results-driven leader seemed to hold sway over his kinder, more compassionate self and he hadn’t found a way to reconcile the two.

Brendan admitted he was fearfully hesitant to reveal his softer leader-side since it may show vulnerability which he firmly associated with weakness. He had a tough reputation as a hard leader to uphold and was deeply convinced this was what others expected of him. At the same time, Brendan’s high-achiever status was taking a beating as he ran up against a wall of distrust, fear and low cooperation from his leadership team who beheld him as uncaring, arrogant and self-centred. It seemed his genuine inner-leader was lost in the mores of public expectations

1. Being Authentic

With apologies to Oscar Wilde for the title of this article – ‘earnest’ may be ‘important’ but being authentic is even more so if you’re a leader, although I guess you can be earnest about being authentic!

Being authentic is being genuine.  

We aren’t afraid to show our true selves or be different. We’re ethical and act with integrity in line with deeply held values about what’s right in terms of our dealings with others.

Bill George, the progenitor of authentic leadership, said in his 2003 book, “leadership begins and ends with authenticity.” 

He tied authenticity to several other traits that included:

  • Being more interested in empowering people than in power, money, or prestige
  • Leading out of purpose and deeply held values about genuinely desiring to serve others
  • Refusing to compromise or water-down when principles or values are tested or questioned
  • Building enduring relationships where others follow you because they know where they stand
  • Being guided as much by heart, by passion and compassion, as by qualities of the mind

When we see leaders who act authentically, who practice what they profess and do what they say they’ll do, we’re more likely to trust and respect them, and want to connect with them. On the reverse side, our emotional radar is deft at detecting falseness. When we feel people are not being genuine or pretending, signals from our emotional brain tell us not to trust them and we often feel suspicious and disconnect.

There is also a moral dimension to authenticity. It’s about truth and how we treat others with inclusion and respect. Some think it means you can act any way you want – be blunt, abrasive, critical, and people should just cop it because that’s the way you ‘genuinely’ are. That’s not being honest or respectful.

  • Being authentic doesn’t mean: “Good, now I can say what I really think of them and not pull any punches.” That’s not authentic – it’s being blunt, arrogant, uncaring, insensitive, or even cruel and offensive. It’s also emotionally unintelligent. It’s all about your need to dictate, direct or impose your will. This also implies other qualities are at play too – like humility and absence of self-centredness.
  • In my conversational coaching clinics, people sometimes want me to agree with them that there’s certain times you have to be blunt and that being any other way is just weakness. I often reply: “You may think being blunt is being honest and authentic. But if you want others to stay open, there’s always a better way to say it with more respect and less aggravation that will get you a better result.”

Being direct rhymes with respect, but not with blunt. Bluntness is fuelled by skewed emotions and egoism that undermines safety, wrecks respect, and leaves others feeling unsafe, blamed and battered.

2. Find your Inner-Leader

Ever walked out of a crunch-time conversation or a turning-point meeting, thinking to yourself: “Why didn’t I deal with that differently? Why did I go silent or politely agree? Why didn’t I say or do what I truly felt I should have” Questioning yourself like this puts you on the brink of discovering your inner-leader, or at least thinking about where you left or lost it.

  • Your inner-leader is a formidable force. Connecting with it can empower you to find joy, meaning and purpose in all parts of your life, including how you lead yourself and others.
  • The best leaders are ones who bring out the best in others around them and help them achieve their goals and aspirations. They know that the first steps to be your best-self as a leader begin within.

To truly comprehend who we really are as leaders and glimpse our potential aspirations, we need to understand ourselves. We need to be clear-hearted about who we are essentially, where we’re going and how we’re going to treat people along the way.

Those set on discovering their real inner-leader reflect on answers to questions they ask themselves like:

  • How well do I really know myself as a person and as a leader?
  • What am I hiding from myself about me? What am I deluding myself about me? What do I fear knowing about myself. What isn’t working for me that I need to front-up to?
  • What’s my true personal purpose? 
  • What do I deeply value or believe in? How can I lead myself to it?
  • What stories of my own making am I stuck in? What mindsets enmesh me? What repeated rackets do I ruminate on? What self-sabotaging behaviours do I indulge in?
  • What changes do I want to make in myself that I keep putting off or lack the tools, tenacity, vision or fortitude to move toward?
  • How can I be the kind of leader who speaks their truth at the same time as making others feel safe enough to speak their truth to me too?

You know you’re closing in on your inner-leader when you start questioning how your personal purpose, actions and values align or not. As a leader, you need to bring your real self to the role. There’s something deep-seated inside all of us that resonates with those who genuinely tell their truth and really level with us. This is the essence of authenticity. Brain science studies say pretending or fabricating undercuts authenticity, creating suspicion and mistrust that block connection.

More than a decade ago, Susan Scott of Fierce Conversations fame, framed 7 Principles, the second of which was “come out from behind yourself and make it real”. What she meant was the mask of pretense we all wear that conceals what’s really going on for us.

  • With pretend conversations, polite discussions, silent withdrawal or emotional grandstanding that accompanies mask-wearing, it’s the antithesis of authenticity, and what makes being open and honest in many workplace cultures a liability. 
  • Authentic leaders don’t conceal what they feel behind a mask, pretending to be someone they’re not, or acting one way in public and another in private. They’re true to their values and they speak their truth.
Discovering your inner-leader means stepping out from behind the mask of superficiality and subterfuge, to find or revive the authentic you – to move past the limited story you or others around you have created for you, and allow yourself to head toward something more expansive, energising, fruitful and truthful. It means:
  • Leaders taking a long hard look at their relationship with the truth and how we all blur, defer or infer.
  • Bringing our whole self to work, being “human beings not just human doings” complete with personal stories, emotional patterns, families, flaws, sensitivities, strengths and insecurities.
  • Being candid without being caustic or critical. Saying what has to be said and allowing others to do the same without recrimination or repercussions.
  • Being transparent, open, knowing what you believe in, what your purpose is and act in accordance.

When leaders do this, they’re more authentic, become more relatable and approachable, and those around them feel freer to have candid conversations – including opening-up about touchy situations such as feeling overwhelmed, not coping with the workload or having made a miscalculation.

  • Speaking your truth isn’t all that easy sometimes. But ultimately, it’s worth it if you extricate yourself from the mire of organisational politics, pettiness, and power-plays.
  • Irrespective of the work culture you’re in, there’s always a place for telling your truth, and your inner-leader quest can help with that.
  • It can make you more resolute, resilient and approachable as a leader, capable of holding safe space for others, and empowering them to tell their truth as well even if it goes against the consensual grain, raises the heat in the room a little or niggles the nay-sayers.

3. Four Arenas for Authentic Leaders

So how do you discover and release your inner-leader? How do you unleash that part of you that knows, instinctively, what’s right for you?

Like most transformations, as we’ve said, it starts on the inside by being more authentically who you are as a leader. You step out from behind the mask and meet others as your best-self.

As kids, most of us tried to please others and seek approval. We wanted to be accepted and were generally expected to do what we were told (well mostly anyway) and not to question authority figures like parents, teachers (and later bosses or experts). Slowly changing, admittedly. But the process of letting ourselves be moulded by other’s expectations is still a strong upbringing theme that leads to losing touch with our inner-leader as it’s worn-down and goes into hibernation. As Brené Brown says: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” So the first step is to find where your inner-leader is slumbering and wake it up. Of course, it’s still there somewhere, waiting to be revivified.

  • Are you going to live the leadership life you think you want based on past conditioning and other’s expectations of what they want you to be like as a leader?
  • Or are you ready to step up and lead by simply being your natural and authentic self?

This next diagram maps four main arenas that make up authentic leadership…

1. The first is creating safe spaces so people can speak up is a critical component authentic leaders nurture. It’s only when people feel safe that they feel they can trust others so that they’ll pull together as a unified team. 

Creating an environment where people feel safe and supported by their colleagues leads us to believe we can trust those around us.

2. The second arena is trust and respect – the twin currencies of leadership. Leaders must treat their team with respect, entrust them, and ensure team members do the same. If we respect someone, we’re more likely to see them as trustworthy – and if we trust someone, we’re more likely to respect them.

Take-away trust and respect in a workplace and what takes its place are rivalry, personal dislikes, suspicion, lack of appreciation and empathy, apathy, or sheer indifference.

3. The third arena is connectivity – the basic primal urge we all feel to belong, be liked, needed, respected, supported, understood and in-synch with those around us. It’s a telling indicator of how well we get along, how much trust there is, and how safe and supportive team culture are.

Good relations rely on making positive emotional connections and that takes empathy. Using our limbic radar, we read where people are which helps us resonate and respond fittingly. Being authentic is a precondition for connecting.

4. Fourth is vulnerability – the source of our authenticity. Being vulnerable enables people to see more of you as a human being and connect better with you.

This creates better conditions in other arenas to increase safety, trust, respect, likingness and connectivity.

Brené Brown puts vulnerability and authenticity at the centre of all human connection. “The result of mutually respectful vulnerability”, she says in her book, ‘Daring Greatly’, “is increased connection, trust and engagement.”

Showing vulnerability means overturning long-fixed mindsets that see it as a weakness or liability rather than a strength and asset. This also goes against an ingrained mindset of what a strong and resolute leader looks like.

But being vulnerable takes gumption. It means revealing the real you – your stories, experiences, strengths, sore spots and home-truths that show others why you think, feel or do things the way you do. Showing vulnerability also creates ‘permission space’ for others to trust, open-up and be more vulnerable too.

By the way, being vulnerable doesn’t mean leaders always disclose personal experiences or randomly reveal emotions or their internal life all the time. It’s not over-sharing, being confessional or being open about everything with everyone. Healthy vulnerability is knowing when it’s fitting to share or not…

Connecting with you...

Connecting with your inner-leader can be a powerful, life-sustaining or renewing experience. It enables you to find purpose, meaning, vitality and success in all facets of your existence, including how you lead others – to clearly see your strengths, find your personal leadership path, and traverse it with clarity, intent and focus.

There’s a powerful leader within all of us, waiting to be unleashed, to help you create the life and have the impact you truly imagine. If you’d like to make a start on, or intensify your focus on finding or refining your-inner-leader, see our course brochure on Discover your Inner-Leader or contact me about individual leader coaching.

This article is based on extracts from our Discover your Inner-Leader program on the role authenticity, self-awareness and vulnerability play in being a real leader. We also support leadership learning on topics such as Emotional and Social Intelligence, Conversational Mastery and Mindful Leadership as well as broader themes like Coaching and Mentoring, Leading Culture and Building Better Teams. See our Course Directory, website or call any time to discuss ways we can help.

Bill Cropper
Director – The Change Forum

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