Authentic leadership is the wave of the future, according to research by Bates Communications. It’s hard to argue with this assertion when we observe just the opposite from every institutional mainstay in our society. No one is immune. Religion, politics, entertainment, business, and education have all demonstrated, in word and deed, the worst forms of hypocrisy and maleficence.
One of my favorite ways to define authentic leadership is to think about someone who is “real.” “Someone who is true to his or her personality, spirit, or character.” (merriam-webster.com) Authentic leaders align what they think, say, feel, and do by humbly admitting mistakes or acknowledging what they don’t know.
The Bates research included six behaviors they use to define authenticity. I will paraphrase for the sake of space.
- Being sincere
- Revealing the life lessons that form your beliefs and values
- Showing how you feel about issues
- Saying what you are really thinking
- Sharing personal stories; revealing your true identity
- Never being fake or phony
Being an authentic leader will help to build trust. We all expect some level of consistent behavior from those who lead us or work with us. When they disappoint us by failing to do what they promised, that inconsistency can damage trust.
Of course, every leader will surprise us with a new way of seeing a problem or perhaps a different way of behaving. Personal growth through reading, observing, listening, and learning will surely change what people do over time. Authenticity isn’t damaged under these circumstances as long as we are clear about why our behavior or perspective has changed.
The Bates research emphasizes that today’s millennial workforce views authenticity in leadership as the most important quality for leaders to have. Integrity was a close second. It seems millennials want leaders they can connect with and trust to do what is right.
This same research also revealed that millennials see authenticity as their top strength. Here is where my skeptical side kicks in.
Is being authentic something we can actually see in ourselves or is it only validated through the observations of others?
I’m sure we can all work hard to be sincere or to resist being phony. But who ultimately decides if you or I are authentic leaders? Is it possible for us to project our biases and opinions onto others? When might we compromise a value so we can receive another’s approval? Do we listen through our personal filters?
Perhaps the hardest part about becoming a more authentic leader is having the courage to admit that we’re not there yet.
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