Why Is Authentic Leadership Important?

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What Is Authentic Leadership?

Before we look at why it’s important to lead authentically, we have to establish what authentic leadership is. It’s not about being “nice” or playing politician and pandering to constituents. Rather, authentic leaders are those who live their lives in accordance with their values and beliefs and can be honest and transparent with themselves and others. They don’t pretend to be someone they aren’t.

Authentic leaders are genuine, in a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of way, without underlying agendas. They’re not afraid to show emotions such as anger, frustration, disappointment, joy, happiness, compassion, empathy, and gratitude. Instead, they share these emotions openly. You can sort of boil it down to ‘wearing their heart on their sleeve’. 

Authentic leaders are real people. They’re not perfect. They make mistakes. They fail sometimes. But they learn from their failures and move on and they never give up.

Rendering of a gold leader at the tip of an arrow made of blue followers.

Leaders who are authentic are trustworthy and loyal to the core. They’re committed to doing what’s right for everyone involved and possess a strong moral compass or set of ethical boundaries. At the end of the day an authentic leader understands a basic premise, you can only be a leader if you have generated the voluntary buy-in of another, a follower. That’s a factor that separates managers from leaders. The manager will always have direct reports, because the employees are paid to be there, but it doesn’t make them a leader. The authentic leader builds followers because they care about the well-being of their team members and their organization.

Leaders who are authentic are also humble. They know that they themselves are only human. They recognize that they need help and support and understand that they can’t do everything by themselves. They know the power of a team is always stronger than the power of one.

How do you practice authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership theory is one of the newer areas being studied in the field of organizational management. When working on your own authentic leadership development and looking to build the highest level of team performance, you can start by trying each day to improve one authentic behavior from the 8 listed below. Business leaders should incorporate these tactics in their leadership journey as they tackle their latest business challenges.

1. Know Yourself and Others

Successful leaders understand the differences among their team. They know how to communicate effectively with different personalities. They know when to listen and when to speak. They know how to resolve conflicts and disagreements. In order for you to be authentic you must understand your own personal story, and to have effective leadership you have to then connect to your followers’ stories. If you want to be an authentic leader you’ll have to practice listening well. Your ability to listen will help you understand your followers better and allow you to lead more effectively.

2. Use Where You Come From

Effective leaders rely on their life experiences. Life stories provide context for understanding the world around us. Authentic leaders understand that the past informs the future so they use their past experiences to inform their decisions today. Michael Jordan famously said “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

3. Build Better, More Honest Relationships

Transparency and honest feedback are a key to any management or leadership style. You need to establish rapport with your team and teach them where you will and where you won’t have their back. Specifically you want to provide honest and candid feedback concisely and in a timely manner. The book Radical Candor discusses the complexities of giving feedback with a common sense approach. It posits that if you can challenge directly while caring personally then you will be appreciated for being radically candid as opposed to winding up in one of the other three quadrants. Using that framework you can build truly open and powerful relationships.

4. Be Self-Aware

When faced with difficult situations, authentic leaders express their feelings honestly. They acknowledge their feelings and try to understand where they come from. Leaders who are authentic are open to change and growth. They are willing to admit when they’ve made mistakes and apologize when necessary. Self aware leaders know that they are always being observed. At all times they set examples for those following them, showing their followers how to behave and act. They model the behaviors they expect from their followers which inspires trust and loyalty. People follow because they believe in you and want to emulate your behavior.

5. Show Empathy

Our world is built on relationships. We corrupt it with class and hierarchies that divide those relationships. Effective leaders understand this and work hard to create a culture of empathy. They strive to see things through the eyes of others. They don’t just talk about what’s going right but focus on what’s going wrong too. This helps people feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

6. Stick To Your Values

Ethical leadership requires you to know the difference between what you could do and what you should do. It means having integrity and knowing where you stand morally and ethically. If you don’t have the courage to stick to your values in times of stress or confusion then you diminish the most important currency the world has ever seen, trust. People associate with others based on, and eventually follow leaders, who they have a strong sense are aligned with their own personal values. If these core values are violated you will lose your leadership role because you will no longer have any followers.

7. Balance Vulnerability with Confidence

When used in tandem, with balance, vulnerability and confidence can elevate you. Recently the Harvard Business Review wrote about these traits not being mutually exclusive. “When you reveal moments of weakness, your team ultimately perceives you as a stronger leader.” It is important to show vulnerability to ensure you are not seen as arrogant. Every perspective on the team matters, even if they are not the final decision maker, and if you do not find this balance you are sure to create a culture that suffers from the ‘ivory-tower’ syndrome.

8. Lead with Heart

Being an outstanding leader is not easy. Owning or managing a business is not easy. There will be times when the going gets tough that you will need to dig deep within yourself, but what’s there? That’s why #8, Lead with Heart is the most important aspect of an authentic leadership style. At the root of it all, you have to find a purpose that resonates with you so you can overcome any adversity. The number one reason we’ve seen company cultures turn toxic is because owners lead with profit as the purpose. While a business is defined by being an organization that turns a profit, it is with this that some business owners lose their humanity, forgetting that as the leader they are unique and independent of the organization itself. They need to remind themselves that both empathy and courage come from the heart. 

So why does authentic leadership matter?

Your team (followers) will look to you in the hardest times to provide a path forward. If you have practiced even a fraction of the authentic leadership behaviors above during your personal development then they will walk the path alongside you and help you to overcome each and every obstacle you encounter. When thinking specifically about small business, SCORE reports that 63.4% of businesses say their biggest challenge is hiring and retaining top talent. In a time like this the success of your business depends on this form of leadership.

At the end of the day, the reality is this approach to leadership matters for a much simpler reason. Do you want to live in a world where the people you interact with every day are not authentic? Chances are, probably not. So be the change you wish to see in this world.

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If you want to discuss your leadership style or develop stronger leadership skills, we offer leadership coaching for everyone from senior executives to department managers.