A guide to authentic leadership

A guide to authentic leadership

When you’re interviewing for a job or talking to a salesperson, you can probably tell whether they are being authentic. Humans have a sixth sense for authenticity, which is why it’s such an important part of connecting with others and being successful in sales. It’s also what makes authentic leadership so powerful.

It hasn’t always been this way. The early 2000s were filled with corporate scandals, including the Enron and WorldCom scandals, two of the largest to shock Wall Street at the time. Businesses seem to have learned their lesson, and now seek authentic leadership characteristics when they hire.

What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on legitimacy and honesty. Authentic leaders strive to build relationships that are based on honesty not only with others but also with themselves. Authentic leadership characteristics include being open, genuine and transparent. They lead by example, demonstrating their strong values through their behaviors and the behavior they expect of their team.

Authentic leaders inspire loyalty and easily create raving fan employees. Their team members trust them because they feel that they really know them. And because this leadership style is open and honest, authentic leadership can actually be a business advantage: Employees always know where they stand, which can lead to higher levels of job confidence and lower turnover.

Authentic leadership frequently overlaps with other leadership styles: affiliative, democratic and coaching styles all complement authenticity. This goes along with authentic leadership theory, which emphasizes that great leaders must develop their own leadership style that’s based on their personality, values and strengths and weaknesses. Nearly any leadership style can be authentic, as long as it reveals your true self.

Top five authentic leadership characteristics

Authentic leaders are a diverse bunch, but they always share these five authentic leadership characteristics.

1. Self-awareness

You cannot be authentic to your true self if you don’t know who that is. Self-awareness – the ability to recognize and accept your own strengths and weaknesses – is key to authentic leadership. As Tony says, “Changing an organization, a company, a country or a world begins with the simple step of changing yourself.” To answer the question “What is authentic leadership?,” you must first take an objective look at yourself.

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2. Strong values

Part of knowing who you are is knowing your own values and beliefs – and authentic leadership means sticking to them. Authentic leaders typically have values like honesty, loyalty and respect, and they not only live up to them, but expect others to do the same. They reward crazy ideas, provide support for struggling team members and create an environment of respect and encouragement in which innovation and creativity thrive.

3. Honesty

Honesty goes both ways: Being honest about yourself and also about others is an essential part of authentic leadership. You must be honest not only about others’ performances – as Jack Welch famously was – but also about your own personal struggles, like Sheryl Sandberg. It is the second type of honesty that many of us struggle with. But when we find meaning in those struggles, as Sandberg did, we can change our story and bring strength to others.

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4. Accountability

We’ve all had team members who were always pointing the finger at someone else – and we don’t enjoy working with them. Authentic leaders know that to build trust and earn the respect of a team, they must take responsibility for their own actions. Accountability helps you reach your goals and become the best leader you can be – and all authentic leaders want that.

5. Humility

It takes a team to build a company, not just a leader. The authentic leadership style recognizes this better than any other. They give credit where credit is due, celebrate the successes of their team and encourage collaboration over competition. Authentic leaders know that they wouldn’t be where they are without their mentors and supporters, and they never forget it.

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Examples of authentic leadership

It’s difficult to come up with a concrete answer for “What is authentic leadership?” because it can encompass many different personalities and leadership styles. Yet there are examples of authentic leadership everywhere.

Steve Jobs

To the surprise of the graduating class of Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs chose to talk about his failures, not his successes. He got real with the students, explaining why he dropped out of college and what it felt like to get fired from his own company. This speech exemplifies the authentic leadership style he used throughout his life.

Sheryl Sandberg

The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook once said, “Leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection,” and she’s lived up to that statement. After the death of her husband, she posted a public essay on Facebook and has continued to practice authentic leadership – and has gained fans from all over the world.

Barbara Corcoran

Another authentic leader who has been completely open about her failures, the real estate mogul and “Shark Tank” investor shows others how they can learn from theirs. Corcoran turned her obstacles into opportunities, saying, “My best successes came on the heels of failures.” That’s what makes an authentic leader.

Jack Welch

Welch brought values-based, authentic leadership to GE and transformed it into a global empire. He had a blunt communication style and always let employees know where they stood. Not everyone loved his style – but there is no doubt it was both effective and authentic.

Want to learn more about what makes an authentic leader?

Authentic leadership is about being true to your natural style. Take the Leadership Style Quiz to discover yours.

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