Authentic Leadership Revisited

Think back on your life and career and quickly come up with the top three leadership figures that have made a lasting impact on you…  Who were these people and what characteristics did they exhibit?

This is a useful exercise in discovering what you value in others when it comes to inspiring you to be your best, learning how to rise from failures and go out and make a difference in the world.  Who inspires you to follow their lead?  Why?

We are all leaders

In my experience leadership figures emerge at all ages and in all arenas of life.  Leadership is not reserved for the business leaders or public officials with the right title. Parents, teachers, fellow students, friends, colleagues, volunteers and anyone else who decides to engage in another person’s life can make an impact.

Several years ago, I decided to write a thank you note to my head teacher in junior high school.  A leadership program had helped me realize how much he had impacted my personal development, simply by challenging the class to think about right and wrong in the context of majority vs. minority, values and ethics.  This laid the foundation for my early adoption of critical thinking and independent decision making, even if that meant not being part of the “in-group” at a vulnerable stage in my young life.

5 characteristics of an authentic leader

Here are five characteristics of authentic leaders I have found to be important to me in choosing who to follow after 20+ years of professional life:

  • Purpose – the ability to inspire followers through painting a vivid picture of the team or organization’s purpose, asking “Why do we exist in the world?”
  • Curiosity – the ability to stay curious about anything affecting the business and be willing to “fail fast and learn”.  Life long learning is a must in today’s world.
  • Values – clarifying core values and living and leading in alignment with these on a consistent basis creates trust with colleagues and clients alike.
  • Humility – the psychological maturity to realize that you are not always right. Humble leaders are able to hire people who are better than themselves, without feeling threatened, and building relationships based on mutual respect.
  • Emotional intelligence – the “soft skill” that enables you to deliver hard results by understanding what motivates people around you and lead with compassion.  Experts predict EQ will be the #1 leadership skill in the 21st century.

When I did the exercise atop this post for myself, I found several of these attributes present in all my favorite leadership figures – from the most visionary and inspiring leaders I have had the pleasure to work with to my colleagues, family and friends.

“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.” – Lance Secretan

Your responsibility as a leader

As an authentic leader, you have a responsibility to continue honing your skills and improving your self-awareness.

  • How do these qualities show up in the way you lead?
  • Why do you choose to lead?
  • What legacy do you want to leave with your leadership?
  • Why should anyone want to be led by you?

When you become clear on your own motivation and the values that guide your leadership, check with some of your key stakeholders if you are on track.  You cannot “fake it until you make it”, because people will sense it when you are not being true to yourself.  In closing, consider this quote from Harvard’s pioneer on the topic, Bill George:

“If you want to be an authentic leader and have a meaningful life, you need to do the difficult inner work to develop yourself, have a strong moral compass based on your beliefs and values, and work on problems that matter to you. When you look back on your life it may not be perfect, but it will be authentically yours.”