Authentic Leadership – Is This Your Leadership Style?
February 1, 2011
TopicsAuthentic, Authentic leaders, Authentic leadership, authenticity
Authentic leaders are people of extraordinary integrity, with a profound sense of purpose and willingness to live by their core values.
William James once said “I have often thought that the best way to define a (wo)man’s character is to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon them, they felt themselves most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says ‘This is the real me.’ ”
The term authentic leadership came to me via a client. She is a student, in the process of receiving her Master’s degree in Leadership. She asked me what model of leadership I followed, and I was hard pressed to explain that to her, and a lengthy conversation ensued. I have often talked of character-based leadership, and servant leaders, but had never heard the term “authentic leadership”. So, I did what I do best – I set out to find out what it means, and what golden nuggets I could glean by doing a little research. I discovered that perhaps the concept of character-based leadership and authentic leadership are one and the same, with a little bit of servant leadership thrown in.
Authentic leaders, according to Bill George, genuinely desire to serve others through their leadership. They are interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference; more than they are interested in power, money or prestige for themselves. They are guided equally by the heart and the mind – practicing heart-based guidance grounded in passion and compassion, as well as thoughtful leadership grounded in the qualities of the mind. They lead with purpose, meaning and values. And their people relationships are extremely strong. People follow them because they are consistent, reliable and strong. When they are pushed to go beyond their beliefs and values, they will not compromise. They are dedicated to personal growth and learning because they believe that becoming a leader takes a lifetime.
It seems that my “model” or “style” of leadership is born from the Georgia Feiste College of Lessons Learned. As with all of my beliefs, I look at many alternatives, and pick out the pieces that make the most sense to me, and run with that. Once I have done that, if I feel the need to find a like-minded community, I watch for a group of people who believe MOST of the same things I do. With that, I may claim a model – or I may not.
What I have found is that it is important for me to be self-directed and independent in my thinking, and stay consistent with my personality and my values. When I pay too much attention to what everyone else wants me to be, I feel like my head is spinning on my shoulders and my feet come out from under me. One of my strengths is being able to stand alone if it is something I truly believe in. Another is in having taken the time to work on my relationship building skills, my people skills – if you will, through my coaching studies and practice. It is in being able to see the beauty in all different types of people, and to be able to work in different environments and situations. This does not mean I create differing roles. What it means is that different situations require different skills and choices that need to be made.
Another aspect of this is in recognizing and embracing my weaknesses as well as using my strengths, and oftentimes acknowledging that they are at times two sides to the same coin. For example, I don’t believe we get very far when the text of our conversation is subtle, which often leads to a lack of tact. People have told me forever that I intimidate them – mostly because they are less confident of their abilities. I make decisions quickly and like to keep moving; flip that to I often get impatient with those who move more slowly. Having embraced my shadow side, I understand that it has often helped me be successful. Paying attention to the people I interact with has helped me soften the edges to make sure that people are feeling that they have been heard, and are fully engaged.
Yes, if I define my leadership style in the context of what is presented here, and the coaching that I do around leadership – I believe I can claim the authentic leadership model as my basis of leading. And, since I believe that life is about the lessons learned each and every day, I may augment at will. That is what makes it authentically and uniquely mine.
How do you define Authentic Leadership?
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Georgia, thanks for the great post.
There are a group of people in the community that think “Authentic” leadership is what Lead Change should be all about. They’re definition of “Authentic” like Mr. George’s, includes many genuine, others-focused, genuinely-good characteristics that are good for leadership.
However, there are others, like me, that think of “Authentic” as a synonym for Integrity or Transparency, true to your core. (I realize this is a more recent definition than the traditional meaning of the word.) The problem is some people are authentically poor leaders. They lack the habits and the skills to do the things that inspire others. That’s why I stick with character-based. Authentically poor leaders lose their followers unless they either upgrade their character to inspire others to follow, or fake-it really well for a time. In the end, unless they upgrade their character, they still lose people unless they have something else to fall back on like their position or their power. The external force of their position or their power helps them exert influence over others. Many authentically poor leaders think they’re good because they have the power or the position to keep most people energized, but it’s not their authenticity that energizes people.
I can agree with Mr. George, you, and our friends who created Authentic Leadership groups because I know your definition of authenticity includes being true to one’s best character. But something in me keeps me “sticking” on the less traditional meaning of the word Authentic.
Mike and Georgia!
Through the Lead Change twitter stream I found this article: Authentic Leadership can be Bad Leadership (http://s.hbr.org/gVFix8), that perhaps addresses your comment above.
I have been thinking a lot about your comment and this article clarifies (for me) why character-based leadership makes more sense (in the context described in the article).
Thanks Sonia! That post does say it much better than I did. Thanks for the recommendation.
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Beautiful text about a very important subject for individuals and organizations!
Thank you Georgia!
I post this link on my blog that I write in French (my mother tongue) about authentic leadership in our daily personnal life and in our professionnal life.
I really hope to have good discussions with the readers about their definition and daily application of authentic leadership.
If you want to see my blog and maybe translate it with babelfish or another tool.
Have a nice day,
Geneviève Desautels (ACC) from Montreal, Canada
I will check out your blog! Thank you so much for the resource suggestion, and post of the link.
Let’s try again – I seem to have a problem with CAPTCHA codes here, for some reason.
I agree, Mike, words will trip us up time and again. We can never determine or know how others will attach intellectual meaning or emotions to the words we use. As you say, for me authentic includes character – because I can’t be authentic without it. Just like integrity means being whole – not just honest.
Thank you for your comments – I always enjoy the conversation with my Lead Change friends.
I liked the post so much I shared it with members of the Authentic Leadership in Montreal Linkedin Group (group start-up inspired by Mike Henry and Erin Schreyer).
I feel that to be authentic, you need to know yourself (and/or be committed to get to know yourself better over time!), to be able to focus on others and better connect with them, with the goal to help them meet their needs.
I could really relate to you post… thank you for doing the research for us and sharing more about you, Georgia! 🙂
Thank you, Sonia! I am very honored to have you post this within your Authentic Leaders group. I would love to see/hear the comments so I will check the group out!
I think there is much more to come on this for me. I embrace the character-based part of leadership fully, but have often wondered if it didn’t go beyond that just a bit.
I love to share what I learn, so you should expect to see several more posts on this topic.
There is an Authentic Leadership in Montreal LinkedIn group? Good to know! I’ll check it out.
Interesting post and interesting question. Thanks for sharing. I’ve always thought my approach to leadership was completely unique…just like everyone else’s. 🙂
Our character is an expression of who we are.
Who we are is proven in the choices we make.
The choices we make define the extent of our influence.
The extent of our influence determines the impact of our leadership.
It sounds like what Mr. George is trying to say is that an Authentic Leader leads from strength of character. Certainly integrity, transparency, humility, self-awareness & selflessness are defining qualities of an Authentic Leader, but I’ve always thought of an Authentic Leader as someone whose influence is felt regardless of position, power, experience or expertise. It is strength of character, passion and skill that attracts followers to an Authentic Leader, not simply position or power. I guess another way you might say this is that an Authentic Leader is the ‘real deal’. Not only do they have the know-how and the will to get the job done, they do it in a way that inspires, encourages and adds value to others.
Mike – I think what you’re saying is that there is an important, if subtle, difference between being an authentic person and being an authentic leader. I work with a bunch of pastors around our state. They are some of the most humble and ‘authentic’ people I know. This may sound strange, but there are times when I think, “These men have dump trucks filled with great stuff to share and no idea how to unload it.” I think that may be your point. Authenticity alone, be it in the form of integrity, humility, self-awareness or selflessness does not make one a leader.
This might be a thought for further discussion. Is it possible to be a Character-based Leader and NOT display the traits of Authenticity? Is it possible to be an Authentic Leader and NOT display the traits of Character-based leadership? What are the differing core values that separate the two definitions?
For me, authenticity is a function of character. Character is an expressin of who I am. Authenticity is the manner in which I share who I am with the world. Therefore, my preference would be to challenge people to be Character-based Leaders living in an authentic manner before the people entrusted to them.
Georgia – thanks for a great post and the opportunity for interesting discussion!
Chad – This is a well thought out response, and much appreciated. I certainly understand how you get to the preference for being a character-based leader. Sometimes I feel as if it’s the chicken and the egg conversation, as you stated a paragraph earlier. Although, I don’t know how you can express your character without being authentic.
It is a great conundrum, isn’t it?
I apologize for being long in my last post, but Georgia, this is a great topic…THANKS.
The key description of an authentic leadership in your post is this sentence, “They are guided equally by the heart and the mind – practicing heart-based guidance grounded in passion and compassion, as well as thoughtful leadership grounded in the qualities of the mind. “. I wish there is a way of classifying people as authentic leaders without alienating others, but we truly need authentic leaders in order to succeed. Authentic leaders care about results and not who get the credits.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an assessment that determines whether you are an authentic leader? I don’t know of one, does anyone else? I think it takes a lifetime to be completely authentic, or even to be completely cognizant of our character – and that’s the beauty of transformational learning. It happens daily as we make our choices in life, as Sonia so brilliantly summarizes her blog with today.
Perhaps one of the project for the lead change group is to come up with an assessment tool or tools. What do you think? I’ll be joining the lead change group starting next month.
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I think you said it perfectly, Georgia. I have always believed that being an authentic leader is about being a good student at your own College of Lessons Learned, rather than emulating what you read in books or drinking the proverbial kool-aid to become a clone of your environment.
My team and I had an experience with a truly unauthentic leader this week, sparking a big discussion on why we felt that way. We felt we never saw the heart of that leader. We just heard what was in his mind, which was loaded with buzzwords that he thought we wanted to hear. I will share this article with my team and others.
What a terrific post! I had always considered myself to be a servant leader, especially after reader James C Hunter’s book “The Servant”, but after reading the Bill George’s meaning of Authentic Leadership, that best describes who I am. Empowering people to make a difference, sounds like a fabulous way to lead.