When we apply the word authentic to people, and more particularly to leaders, we are really putting them under the same level of scrutiny a valuer may authenticate a diamond. We are putting them under the spotlight to see if they are a coherent and consistent character through and through. Or whether under the stress of leadership the flaws will emerge that will somehow devalue the overall result.
Today’s leaders are under constant pressure to perform, to engage their staff and to communicate to their shareholders. It is far greater than anything that was experienced by leaders of the last century. With the level of unrest that is felt at both a global and local level throughout the modern world, this pressure shows no signs of waning anytime soon.
Authenticity is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘of undisputed origin’. The word originally comes from the Greek word ‘Authentikos, meaning 'principal or genuine'. So why does it matter to leaders of today and what can they do to demonstrate their principles or that their intentions are genuine?
If the global crisis had taught us anything, it is the need to build trust and listen to what our consumers and clients are asking for. If we fail to do this, we are in danger of falling into pitfalls of arrogance or misunderstanding what is it that is most valued about our offering and undermining the very nature of our brand, as Volkswagen found only out to their cost.
Authenticity goes hand in hand with other qualities that we associate with good leaders, such as inner wisdom, a considered approach to crisis and building strength through empowerment. It is not a characteristic that can be learned from any business school or text book, but comes from a deep internal dialogue and intent that is consistent with outer actions. This builds with experience, emerging from life’s challenges and from having to make difficult decisions under very tough circumstances. Like steel that is tempered in a forge and becomes more pure with each firing, values and intentions become clearer to a leader the more pressure and challenge that they have faced and overcome. The most authentic leaders are those that are able to marry these challenges with a deep reflective style, taking time to connect with their own inner voice.
Qualities associated with Authenticity include:
- Being a really good listener – Authentic people know how important it is to understand and acknowledge other people’s perspectives. This does not mean agreeing with everyone. In fact most studies on engagement and communication show that acknowledging differences in opinion heightens rather than diminishes trust.
- Admitting your limitations – Authentic leaders know that they are not super-human and therefore understand that creating an illusion of being all-knowing is a recipe for disaster. Acknowledging your limitations openly has a counter-intuitive effect, in that it enhances people’s perceptions of your abilities. Why? Because you have displayed self awareness, one of the highest character traits for the authentic leader.
- Empowering others to be creative - Authentic leaders are really good at creating an environment of engagement and participation; it is second nature to them. They do this because their leadership style is not driven by a power-hungry ego. Instead, they see power, status and control coming through sharing responsibility across a wide network of players.
- Displaying harmony between words and deeds – perhaps the most important rule of them all for the authentic leaders is sticking to his or her word. Reliability in actions is the ‘killer’ ingredient. It only takes one or two slips on your promises to lose huge ground in the trust of your people.
It's clear that the list goes well beyond workplace behaviours and becomes a code for life and yes you've guessed it, authetnic leaders tend to be well rounded and positive human beings. If you have some experience of authentic leaders, or the impact of not having authentic leaders, please do share your comments below.
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