Authentic Leadership: What It Is, Why It Matters
How to Be a More Authentic Leader
Authenticity is the healthy alignment between internal values and beliefs and external behavior. Authenticity comes from finding your style and your way of leading — and making life decisions that reflect your ethics, values, and your personality.
Leadership success starts with authenticity — doing our jobs without compromising our values and personality. People trust us when we are true to ourselves, and that trust makes it possible to get things done.
Leaders who are clear about the importance of building trust are better able to be authentic without being inappropriate. But being authentic and practicing honesty isn’t a license to behave without filters, political savvy, or good judgment.
Why Is Authentic Leadership Important?
Authenticity helps organizations. People who have an authentic leadership style bring their whole selves to their jobs and participate fully and honestly in the workplace. Organizations that foster authentic behavior are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic, motivated employees and psychologically safe cultures.
In contrast, inauthenticity can often be recognized by others and become a disruptive, negative force, adding to uncertainty, distrust, and a lack of passion among employees.
Being authentic is easier when you already “fit.” If you look, walk, or talk in a manner consistent with dominant images of leadership in your organization, line of work, and even the broader culture, authenticity usually comes easier for you.
That’s why it’s important to understand social identity and embrace inclusive leadership so that more people will feel able to bring their full selves to work. This creates a culture of respect at your organization.
Authentic leadership benefits individuals, too.
Being a phony is hard work. Managers who struggle with inauthenticity often find themselves depleted, losing interest in their work, and experiencing low levels of job satisfaction. It takes a lot of energy to behave in ways that are out of sync with our true values, priorities, hopes, characteristics, and leadership style. The energy expended trying to come across as something you are not is energy unavailable for work and other activities.
What Guides an Authentic Leader?
There are several ways to describe an authentic leader — they’re passionate about their work, they have a commitment to the organization, and they focus on the future ahead. Authentic leaders are those who are true to themselves and the principles that guide them. Although they may be in charge, their principles ultimately govern them, and people ultimately matter. For authentic leaders, building character and culture is a function of aligning their beliefs and behaviors with the principles of the organization.
Authentic leaders have the integrity and skills to make the right choices when necessary. Here are the other skills that define this leadership style:
- Self awareness. Enables you to understand yourself and your relationship to your employees, the organization, and the vision.
- Genuineness, modesty, and humility. Allows you to share the glory with your team members.
- Empathy and ethics. Gives you the ability to make necessary decisions with integrity and allows you to support your team and remain committed to doing what’s right.
- Results-focus. Empowers you to create a future beyond your present reality and enables you to energize your employees to see the vision as clearly as you do.
Tips to Become a More Authentic Leader
Becoming a more authentic leader doesn’t have to be a complicated process. Try these 5 helpful tips to build an authentic leadership style:
1. Rethink “leadership image.” A sincere passion and desire to learn and change is what building a leadership image is all about. With that in mind, consider the gap between the image that others have of you and the image you would like to project. A big obstacle to authenticity is a strong need to maintain a certain image. You may have defined your image of “executive” or “leader” more narrowly than you need to. Try to let go of the tight limits or expectations of how you need to appear — revealing your personality and humanness is a better sign of effective leadership.
Often, gaining awareness of your current image and leadership brand goes a long way. But before you make any changes, be sure to get a good, truthful picture of your current image. Take time to understand how others see you and why. Seek feedback from your colleagues, boss, and direct reports. Ask your friends, children, and significant other. Each of these points of view will shed light on how your words and behavior are viewed by the people around you.
2. Increase your self-awareness. A key component of behaving authentically is to understand what you care about most. Try these ways to boost your self-awareness. What are your values, likes, dislikes, and weaknesses? This might sound simple, but we often avoid or overlook the process of clarifying what’s most important to us. Sometimes, given societal norms and conditioning, women in particular struggle with this aspect of leading authentically. Consider asking yourself questions like, what is my current skill level and knowledge related to the role? Or, how would others view my performance so far?
3. Assess and evaluate. Once you have established your values, likes, dislikes, and weaknesses, you can better understand how aligned your behaviors are with your values and ethics. Assess what you have already given up, and be clear on what’s most important to you now and what you will and will not do to get there. Remember, there are no “right” trade-offs to make, and your choices will likely change at various points in your life. Set goals for yourself that are aligned with your values.
4. Take action, but get support. Make a change in your life, turning your intentions into reality. You may decide sweeping changes are needed, but, if so, remember that you don’t need to do it all at once. You can start with small steps and gradually align your behaviors with your most important values. Remind yourself that genuine change is rarely dramatic or sudden. For leaders, a significant change is likely to be viewed suspiciously as false or manipulative behavior.
You’re not likely to make real, sustainable change without a commitment to small, daily tweaks over time. Bring trusted colleagues and friends into your plan for greater authenticity, too. They can be sounding boards, feedback-givers, cheerleaders, and problem-solvers. At the same time, have faith in your own judgment about what’s right for you and your leadership style.
5. Work on being a more effective communicator. Communication is so important for leaders to build trust and show authenticity, so consider these tips:
- Tell stories. Leaders who give examples through their stories are more engaging. You influence the organization’s culture when you tell stories about what happened, about how a problem was solved, or about someone who did something notable.
- Master your message. Clarity of thought and message is key, so think about what you want to say. Every question and every conversation is an opportunity to share ideas, vision, and values with honesty. But strike a balance between too much detail and not enough. Also, be sure you can talk vision and concepts, yet show your grasp of the tactical.
- Leverage leadership networking. It’s not about collecting business cards or schmoozing. It’s about building relationships and making alliances in service of others and in service of your organization’s work and goals. To assess your network and enhance communication, think about your current priorities and challenges, then create a network diagram that directly relates to these factors. Rank the people in your diagram in terms of their importance to you, and identify your most important relationships. Finally, diagnose any weaknesses and gaps in your network and take action to learn from others.
- Use vocal variety. People listen better to a pleasant and enthusiastic speech pattern. Pay attention to your intonation, speed, diction, pacing, and volume. Do you regularly overuse a word or forget to breathe and rush through what you have to say?
- Focus on “we.” Leaders who use inclusive language, like “we” and “us,” inspire passion in their listeners and draw on shared effort and interests.
- Smile. You’ll appear friendly if you tap into your personal warmth, and the best way to convey warmth is to smile. Often leaders don’t relax or crack a smile unless they’re talking about something personal such as a child’s school event or a recent vacation. You’ll be more effective if you take the same tone when talking about the business.
- Consider visual impact. Your listeners will see you before they hear you, and nonverbal communication is powerful. Change your haircut or update your wardrobe. If you feel good about your appearance, you’ll project an image of greater confidence and job satisfaction. Consider how to make the most of your virtual persona and communication effectiveness, too.
As you work on becoming a more authentic leader, practicing new behaviors may feel uncomfortable or strange. That’s okay, but avoid doing anything that doesn’t mesh with your values, ethics, and intentions.
Your image can be either an asset or a liability for you as a leader. Building a more authentic leadership image is not about creating a false picture of yourself, but about recognizing genuine aspects of yourself that should be coming across to other people — but aren’t.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Authentic leadership can be assessed and enhanced. Strengthen the culture of your organization with a customized learning journey for your leaders using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Authentic Leadership, Communication, Conflict Management, Emotional Intelligence, Listening to Understand, Self-Awareness, and more.