David was a leader in a technology company. Highly driven and successful, he had been on a fast-track through a series of quick promotions, and he was known for adding tremendous value and getting things done.
People liked David, but they didn’t fully trust him. When you talked with David, he was just a little too polished, a little too “perfect.” There was something not quite believable about him. And it was hard to tell what David’s motives were. Though he said the right things, it always seemed some of his true intentions were hidden. At mid-career David’s advancement slowed.
I’ve worked with leaders like David who come across as too polished, distant, or who otherwise don’t fully engender trust. They may try to appear a certain way, project a certain image. Or they may seem closed, hard to “find”, or hard to read. The bottom line is they aren’t fully authentic.
Authenticity is crucial to leadership, and executive presence. People who are authentic come across as real, genuine, open and transparent. An authentic leader is someone you can know, someone you can connect with. They are the opposite of fake; they are fully human. And while they may have extraordinary talent and skill, authentic leaders don’t feel distant.
So, how do you develop greater authenticity?
Get to know yourself
First, work on self-awareness. Authenticity demands knowing what’s truly important to you, what you care most about. You need to be in touch with your interior life, to understand your motivations and fears. You need to know what makes you most passionate, and what you believe most profoundly.
The better you know these things, the more you can let others see them–and that’s a big part of authenticity. Putting it another way, the more fully you connect with yourself, the more easily others can connect with you. Depth of self-knowledge can also serve as a powerful internal compass to help you make tough decisions and weather challenging periods. Self-awareness is a foundation not just of executive presence, but of good leadership, even of wisdom.
Some leaders are so busy, they don’t take time to connect (or reconnect) with their interior world. Sound familiar? If this rings a bell, there are several ways you can do this more intentionally. Any practice where you slow down, observe and reflect on who you are and what you care about can move the needle. Try these:
- In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner provide some great exercises (see chapter two, “Clarify Values”). One is to write your “credo,” a summary of your leadership philosophy. The idea is to write guidelines, as if someone were going to fill in for you for six months. What principles would you want them to operate with? This forces you to reflect on the principles at the center of your leadership. They also recommend reflecting and journaling on questions like, “What do I stand for?” Self-reflection is a great tool.
- Meditation, mindfulness and other forms of self-observation increase self-awareness and develop a part of your brain that is essential for leadership.
- Formal assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and StrengthsFinder 2.0 help you see yourself more clearly.
- 360-degree feedback can provide tremendous insight. You can even begin simply by asking colleagues, friends or family members, “What are my strengths? How could I improve? What are my core values?” Or engage a coach to conduct a 360 for you. You’ll learn a lot.
Be open and honest…
Authenticity requires some openness about who you are and what you really think and feel. People trust transparent leaders because “What you see is what you get.” Having a hidden agenda or trying to manipulate people is a fast route to reducing your authenticity.
Some people are under the misguided impression that to be a great leader, you have to appear to be flawless, that you must always make a show of strength. This is simply not true. People are not looking for perfection. They’re looking for a real human being who they can connect with, trust and follow. Flaws can be endearing. In fact I think we often love people more when we see their flaws, because it gives us more permission to be real ourselves.
Research shows that people want to know their leaders. They don’t just want to know their leader’s vision for the organization; they want a personal connection. One way to achieve that is by sharing more about yourself: your family, history, joys, passions and fears. Sharing some of these things with the people you lead can help them feel closer to you.
You can also be more authentic by asking about others’ lives, and showing genuine concern and caring for their struggles. Concern and interest are usually viewed as authentic, as long as they are sincere.
…But you still need some filters
Of course, you can’t be totally open about everything all the time. Nor should you be. There may be personal matters or other information that needs to remain confidential. Authenticity doesn’t mean saying everything that comes into your mind. No, effective authentic leaders monitor their behavior and words because they know these things impact others.
I recently had a conversation with a senior leader that illustrates this point. She had been very open with her team regarding the challenges her company was facing, and she was proud of how transparent she had been. But she also received feedback that her team was feeling demoralized. I reminded her that her role was not just to be open and transparent, but also to give hope, encouragement and inspiration to her team.
Engendering optimism is important. During tough times authentic leadership involves reaching into yourself, finding some positivity, and creating a message that both transparent and encouraging. “We’re facing a real challenge. I recognize that. But I also know what you all are capable of…you are an extraordinarily talented team. I know we can still meet our goals!”
How authentic are you as a leader? Do you know what’s important to you and why? Can you articulate it? Do you share important thoughts and feelings with those around you? Do the people you work with know some personal things about you and your life? Do you find genuine ways to show you care? Do you build optimism and inspiration into your transparency about bad news, when possible?
For more on balancing authenticity in the leadership role, see the Harvard Business Review article, “The Authenticity Paradox.” For a deeper dive see Bill George’s book, Authentic Leadership.
To learn about other aspects of executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, word choice, body language and voice.