The term “authentic leadership” has been tossed around quite a bit recently. But what is it exactly and why is it so important?
Authentic leadership is more than just shared values within an organization or positive role modeling. Michael Kernis, whose research includes authentic functioning and mindfulness, describes authenticity as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true, or core, self in one’s daily enterprise.”
Within the context of a business, that means that there is no gap between one’s expression of self and one’s business decisions. Everything is aligned and transparent, which can be challenging when shifting from personal perspectives to business perspectives and back again.
Valuing authenticity means that a company is getting the best out of its employees because what each individually brings to the table is respected as a part of the whole. As companies become more diverse, this ability to bring one’s whole self to the job while engaging with company goals and mission becomes even more crucial. For all leaders, and especially multi-cultural leaders, it’s an essential element of building executive presence.
How do we achieve authenticity in our leadership and executive presence?
According to researcher Laura Kinsler, authentic leadership is defined by two main pillars: self-awareness and self-regulation. Authentic leaders are able to see their own values and goals objectively and in a way that aligns with how they are perceived by others. Their actions are a direct reflection – or at least an acknowledgement – of their beliefs and they are empathetic to the needs of the whole. In short, they stand for something, and these principles are the seeds of their business strategies.
Specifically, an authentic leader embodies these eight traits:
1. A high level of self-awareness
2. Knowledge of oneself and one’s strengths and weaknesses
3. Objective decision-making
4. The ability to act honestly and openly
5. The courage to act in line with one’s own beliefs and values
6. The ability to self-regulate
7. A sense of ethics and moral values
8. An invested interest in development and success of others
This movement towards authenticity is relatively recent. Not too long ago, most employees, regardless of gender or cultural heritage, were expected to think, dress and behave like everyone else (the dominant culture in an organization). Now that diversity has entered the playing field, the paradigm is shifting. Individual expression and authenticity are the new names of the game – values that are helping organizations find even greater productivity, innovation and revenue streams.
What are the challenges to authentic leadership? For some, the idea that effective leadership involves a high level of emotional intelligence may seem counterintuitive in a realm where confidence and bravado are highly valued. This may lead to the feeling of being phony or ill at ease when attempting to lead authentically.
If authentic leadership has not been established as the norm within a company or one’s personal values are not in alignment with the implicit or explicit values of the organization, there is less impetus on a personal level for courageous acts of vulnerability and honesty. A clash between organizational and individual values can be, at best, very confusing. At the worst, this discrepancy can completely undermine a leader.
Additionally, there may be cultural barriers to embracing authentic leadership. If your cultural heritage values a more passive or subtle approach to collaboration, stepping into the light of leadership – and the vulnerability that comes with that – can seem daunting.
Despite the challenges, practicing authenticity is not only good for business, it can also be a good practice for everyday life. Studies have shown that individuals who practice authenticity have higher psychological well-being, enhanced personal autonomy, desire for positive relationships, a sense of purpose in leadership, mastery over their environments and the motivation to grow as leaders.
With regards to workplace productivity, authentic leadership can lead to more positive decision-making and increased performance at every level of organization. Studies have also shown that this type of leadership can result in higher individual productivity, fewer missed workdays and less turnover. Anka Wittenberg writes in Entrepreneur that “authentic workers are more likely to bring their whole selves to the job, engage with the company’s goals and participate fully in the mission of the enterprise.”
An authentic leader has the ability to set a precedent that can permeate a company’s business practices. While this type of leadership begins with individuals, it really makes a difference once it becomes a cultural habit for the entire company. How can you be a more authentic leader today?