Is authentic leadership your greatest asset?
Updated: Nov 17
Are you working towards that next big promotion and wondering what sort of leader you are or want to be? Maybe you’re inspired by leaders in your organisation and want to be like them. Or feel you need to be in order to be effective or gain approval. Of course it can be tempting to adopt the leadership style of others, but being true to yourself is actually your greatest asset.
Most people bring a persona into their work and leadership style – they might choose to mask their insecurities or poor decisions, or they may mimic the dominant leadership style in their organisation. Aside from the stress and friction in trying to be something we’re not it also doesn’t pay off. By contrast, authentic leadership, is the most effective predictor of employee satisfaction, loyalty and workplace happiness . As one leadership workshop participant recently told me:
I had a real ‘ah ha’ moment about authentic leadership. I had assumed I had to be someone else, a macho character. I realised you can’t be a brilliant leader by being someone else.
Authentic leaders bring themselves fully into their leadership, setting the bar through their example in a straightforward and honest way that doesn’t try hide their character, their mistakes or their vulnerabilities. Authentic leaders see their leadership role as a key part of their self-identity. They typically have a high level of self-awareness, align their goals in harmony with their values and behave in a way that’s true to who they are.
But for those looking to reveal more of their authentic selves, the path to authenticity isn’t necessarily that simple. In her Authenticity Paradox Ted Talk London Business School Professor Herminia Ibarra’s research shows that learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviours that can make us feel calculating, instead of genuine and spontaneous, and we can latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable . So how do you make the transition to becoming more authentic while ensuring you don’t fall into the ‘comfort’ trap as a leader? Let’s look at the key characteristics that define authentic leadership: 
Try new experiences and ‘test out’ your style: learning leadership skills involves a process of trial and error that allows us to refine what feels authentic. Our leadership behaviours need to be practiced until they become natural. The moments that most challenge our sense of self are also the ones that can teach us the most. By viewing ourselves as a work in progress, and evolving our professional identity through trial and error, we will develop a leadership style that is authentic and that suits our changing circumstances. Herminia Ibarra refers to this process of learning by plunging ourselves into new experiences, as developing “outsight” .
Self-awareness: this is about understanding our place in the world, the evolution of our journey and our impact on others. Authentic leaders recognise their strengths and weaknesses. Being willing to admit when we get it wrong creates a safe and empathetic space for others to do it too. But self-awareness isn’t static; we need to continually check-in on our behaviour and solicit feedback so that we’re tuned in to the implications and follow-through of our actions and decisions on others.
Impartiality: by being open to the ideas of others we can reach better business decisions, help lead teams to more successful outcomes, and navigate a crisis without alienating our colleagues. Being open to change and seeking out opinions that counter our views is a critical element in ensuring we de-bias our own decisions and give value to the input and ideas from others.
Internal Moral Code: we all carry an internal moral code – our default what we know is right behaviour. Our moral code is a deep-set part of us and is independent of organisational values, societal pressures or popular opinion. Contradicting our values is to contradict our self. Authentic leaders show a genuine desire to serve others and seek the best outcome through their leadership. By acting in harmony with our moral code we can build credibility and earn the respect and trust of our colleagues.
Relationship transparency: authentic relationships and trust can’t be built on foundations of game-playing, politic or emotional manipulation. Authentic leaders show their emotional cards and openly share information. This also means sharing the positive, as well as the constructive. In the long run employees appreciate genuine feedback that allows them progress and develop. 
Becoming an authentic leader, and staying one amidst a changing work environment, is a continuous process. It needs practice and the willingness to ‘try on’ different approaches to learn what feels most authentic to you. It also needs self-awareness, the ability to apply our leadership in context and a focused value set that extends beyond ourselves. Or as Michael Holland sums it up, authentic leadership is revealed in the alignment of what you think, what you say, and what you do.
Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of accelerating more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.
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Jensen, S. M. & Luthans, F. (2006). Entrepreneurs as authentic leaders: impact on employees’ attitudes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal 27 (8), 646-666. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/01437730610709273/full/html?fullSc=1
Ibarra, H. (2018). The Authenticity Paradox TedX Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/professor_herminia_ibarra_the_authenticity_paradox
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Ibarra, H. (2015). The Outsight principle: How executives really become authentic leaders. Progress, 3. http://dev.herminiaibarra.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Progress_Issue-3.pdf#page=5
What’s Authentic Leadership, & How Do You Practice It: https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/authentic-leadership