How to Become an Authentic Leader

How to Become an Authentic Leader

It turns out the concept of “authentic leadership” is a pretty new one.  A recent review of academic articles on authentic leadership found fewer than 100 of them, and most were published within the past decade (see Leadership Quarterly, October 2011).  What’s more there is no single agreed-upon definition of what authentic leadership is.

There is some agreement however that a foundation for authentic leadership is self-awareness.  Authentic leaders know who they are, and they share that self with those around them.

Here are a few suggestions for developing more self-awareness and becoming a more authentic leader, based on my research and experience.  I especially draw on a February 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” by Bill George and others.

(1)  Explore your own life story, and frame it in a productive way.  Most of us have challenges in our past.  Some have enormous challenges.  The key is:  have you taken the time to reflect on your own experiences, learn from them, and develop a story you tell yourself about them that ultimately empowers and inspires you?  Daniel Vasell had an extraordinarily challenging childhood, which included painful medical conditions as well as family tragedy.  From these experiences he developed a desire to go into medicine.  “Vasella’s experience is just one of dozens provided by authentic leaders who traced their inspiration directly from their life stories.”  Now as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Novartis, he has wide-reaching impact to help people who suffer from medical conditions.  Far from wallowing in his own victimhood, he developed an enlightened view of his past as the fuel for passionate service to others.

Exercise:  Draw a “lifeline.”  On a sheet of paper, draw a line from left to right, representing your life from birth until now.  Draw the line high up on the page for the high points in your life, and low on the page for the low spots.  Label these highs and lows with a few words that describe what happened.  Share your lifeline with a friend or colleague.  Ask yourself–how can I harvest the best possible outcomes from these experiences?  How do these experiences shed light on my core purpose and passion?

(2)   Get feedback on your strengths and blind spots.  Part of knowing who you are involves developing a balanced view of yourself.  Most of us don’t start out with that balanced view–we see ourselves as both better, and worse than we actually are.  The best leaders actively ask for and listen to feedback from colleagues so that they can develop this balanced view.  Their self-knowledge provides a basis from which to speak and act in ways that are more powerful, more transparent, and consequently more authentic.

Exercise:  Ask colleagues to have a conversation with you where they share their view of your strengths and development areas.  Ask for their candor, and explain why it will help you.  If they do share things that are hard to hear, train yourself to simply say “thank you,” and not get defensive or try to justify why you disagree.  Reflect earnestly on all the feedback you get.

(3)   Reflect on your core values.  Take quiet time by yourself to reflect on basic questions like:  what do I care about most deeply and why?  What’s important to me and why?  If I could contribute anything to the world in my lifetime, what would it be, and why?  What keeps me up at night?  For a good list of this sort of question, see The Leadership Challenge, an outstanding leadership book by Jim Kouzes and Gary Posner, p. 69.

Exercise:  Get a copy of The Leadership Challenge and go through the questions they provide on p. 69.  Spend quiet time journaling your answers.  Don’t rush this.  Do it over days or weeks.

(4)  Develop “relational transparency.”  Authentic leaders share something personal about themselves.  This doesn’t mean they constantly bare their souls to everyone around them.  But it does mean that (a) they do bare their souls to some people in their lives and (b) they share something meaningful about themselves with their colleagues at work.  In other words, they let their guard down.  The fact is that self-disclosure builds trust.  We say a leader is authentic in part because they have allowed us to see more of them than we expected, and so we can relate to them and identify with them.

Exercise:  Start by making sure there’s at least one person in your life that you can share everything with.  If you already have that, then expand that circle to include a few close confidants.  As you become more comfortable self-disclosing in a deeper way with trusted friends and family, you can more easily do some appropriate self-disclosure at work.