Legitimate Leadership Authenticity: The Great Debate

By Chip Scholz

I hear a lot of buzz around the words “authentic leadership”. Some demand more, while others debate its meaning. Regardless, smart leaders recognize the cries of dissatisfaction and seek ways to engage others with passion, authenticity and long-term value.

Legitimate leadership authenticity begins with self-knowledge: your values, thoughts, and actions. It carries with it a set of moral obligations. Leaders must avoid deception, contradiction, hidden agendas and ulterior motives. 

Leadership experts like Bill George, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, have studied how authenticity impacts organizations—and how a lack of it destroys them. Distant and insincere leadership repels people, causing multiple dysfunctions. Only legitimate authenticity works.

Employees want a rewarding work life—an environment that cares for them, values their contributions and gives them a chance to grow. Companies can no longer be impersonal buildings where employees show up each day, carry out their duties and shut off their brains before going home each night. People aren’t satisfied with simply following procedures and checking boxes; they seek professional fulfillment.

Many leaders have yet to grasp what authenticity necessitates and consequently fail to implement it. While authenticity’s facets are broad, its general principles are relatively uncomplicated and well worth the effort to learn and practice. Branding and leadership expert Anna Crowe outlines four of its key attributes in Get Real: The Power of Genuine Leadership, a Transparent Culture, and an Authentic You (Lioncrest Publishing, 2019):

  1. Adaptability
  2. Direct communication
  3. Putting values into action
  4. Leading with passion

Discerningly Adaptable
Adaptability requires confidence and, ironically, consistent character. Being adaptable doesn’t mean being fickle, constantly changing course or bending under pressure. It calls for sticking to principles and plans with consideration, reasonable flexibility and understanding. 

Being consistent in how you display these traits allows your people to count on you. They know what they’re getting and what to anticipate. Employees want their leaders to be reliable and able to handle an ever-evolving environment with a variety of inputs, viewpoints and choices. They need leaders to adapt to the diversity of their surroundings and, as Crowe puts it, adjust to people’s unique situations. 

Leaders should assess their personalities to gauge their flexibility. A stubborn, prideful spirit clearly isn’t geared for authenticity. A trusted colleague or qualified executive coach can help you objectively determine how adaptive you are. Coaches are trained to guide you through adaptability’s nuances and steer your personality toward this critical mindset. 

An adaptable approach fosters trust in challenging times and allows you to be true to yourself. People will know where they stand with you. When leaders put on airs, hide their intentions or contradict themselves, authenticity and trust are compromised. Leaders who remain calm, collected, insightful, understanding and willing to try new ideas demonstrate the trust-building power of adaptability.

Adaptable leaders know how to build unity within their teams. They avoid power games, politics or favoritism. They understand how to pull people into a common effort, pick their battles, make appropriate exceptions, meet urgent needs and make effective changes when necessary. Leaders who maintain the status quo, rigidly cling to rules and fear new approaches show a lack of authenticity, causing employees to hold back their best.

Leaders also gain respect and trust when they adapt to others’ input. Most teams include people with diverse backgrounds, personalities and perspectives, which encourage a wide range of ideas and solutions. Authentically considering what people offer and appreciating their contributions affirm them and add to their sense of fulfillment.

Direct Communication
Survey after survey show that most employees want better communication at work.  And given the vast amount employees must sift, sort and respond to, it’s no wonder. But what, exactly, is better? 

Some leaders consider information to be communication in and of itself, but it’s really just data. Communication is the ability to convey information strategically. Think about it: when leaders communicate with purpose, logic, intention and emphasis, people detect authenticity. Employees trust leaders who speak clearly and directly. 

Authentic communication cannot be muddled, confusing or timid. People think a leader who hedges or beats around the bush has something to hide and write off communication as inauthentic.

Inauthentic communication is the best way to lose employees’ respect and trust. Dishonesty, mixed messages, inconsistency and unreliability are serious communication weaknesses. They’re noticed quickly and are impossible to hide.

But when leaders consistently communicate complete and timely information, people can rely on its authenticity. They know leaders are attempting to benefit everyone. When leaders hold back information for personal or political motives, employees usually discover the deception and develop distrust. Leaders solve communication problems when they recognize that people notice them and form opinions that are difficult to overturn. Seeing yourself from another person’s perspective will motivate you to enhance your approach.

Airs and pretenses must be cast aside. Leaders become transparent when they admit to being fallible or poorly informed on a specific topic. Such authenticity is attractive, especially when leaders ask for help. Admitting mistakes reveals a vulnerability that draws people’s admiration and appreciation. As Crowe points out, a leader’s mask severs the connections needed for collaboration and unity.

Leaders who hold themselves accountable to their people earn respect. Making commitments means you must deliver on them. If you’re open to feedback, willing to ask people about their needs, seek ideas for improvement and genuinely listen to feedback, you demonstrate authenticity. Taking action based on this input convinces people you’re authentically interested in their welfare and growth.
 

Putting Values Into Action
Leadership begins with your most worthy intentions and personal principles. Your core values direct your thoughts, priorities, preferences, and actions. They set the direction of your organization. 

No two leaders will have the same set of core values. They are almost as unique as fingerprints. Your values establish your personal standards for what is right and wrong, acceptable and not acceptable. 

Your values are the basis for measuring your personal progress of growth, your impact on your areas of responsibility, the contributions you’ve made and the satisfaction you receive. But they mean nothing to other people unless they’re backed up with action, Crowe emphasizes. 

Leaders who value people regard relationships as their organizations’ lifeblood. They understand that people work effectively only when they authentically relate to each other in a culture that promotes relationships. People-centered leaders purposefully relate to their colleagues, superiors and direct reports, thereby setting an example for their teams. 

A relationship-oriented culture welcomes workplace diversity, recognizing the advantages of multicultural backgrounds and distinct abilities. Relational leaders put these differences to use, providing employee fulfillment by making sure everyone is included and valued. They respect people for who they are—not only for their technical skills, but for the relationships they cultivate. 

Teamwork is critical to maintaining relationships and productivity. We accomplish more when working with blended resources. We are the sum of our parts. Teamwork-centered employees experience greater engagement and fulfillment. If you authentically promote teamwork, you’ll be surprised at the levels to which people can rise. 

If you set high goals for your teams, be prepared to provide a commensurate level of assistance. Give of yourself, and clear the way for people to succeed. Demonstrate that you’re willing to sacrifice your own needs to further the team’s goals and accomplishments. Put your people’s needs ahead of self-interest. Employees will do almost anything to please leaders who go out of their way to help them succeed.

Professionalism is yet another value that sets the pace for your workforce. You can have fun and enjoy what you’re doing, but treat situations in mature and intentional ways. Your moral code should reflect authenticity and excellence. Banish negativity and inappropriate behavior, and exemplify a commitment to giving your best. Authentic leaders embody professionalism by walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

Leading with Passion
Great leaders are not afraid of leading with passion. They share their genuine enthusiasm for their vision and passion for how it benefits others. They seek ways to spark passion in their people and make genuine efforts to enhance their employees’ experiences. 

Conversely, inflicting a smothering system of red tape, indecisiveness and apathy kills employees’ interest and efficiency. People are more invested in their jobs if you offer them as much authority as they can manage. Empower your people to make decisions, take action and put ideas in motion. The less your people need to rely on you to make decisions, the more fulfilled they’ll become. 

Challenge your people to accomplish what they didn’t think possible. Provide real opportunities that push them. People find passion when they’re free to be all they can be. Create a culture that aims high and demands excellence. Your people can raise the bar on their own endeavors, as you continue to reward their successes and offer positive feedback.

Of course, challenges carry opportunities for failure. Allow for mistakes when people are trying their best. Letting people fail can be positive if you continue to support them and send them back out there with new challenges. People need to learn from their mistakes and often find success in ways that wouldn’t be possible without having failed. A culture that forgives failure reduces fear and hesitancy, two significant roadblocks to fulfillment. Leaders who offer authentic encouragement and confidence boost their people’s passion.

Your most effective way to inspire passion is to live it. Passion cannot be forced or faked (it is simply too easy to detect). Leading authentically draws followers, so don’t be afraid to show vulnerability. Not everyone will agree with your visions and ideas. Every time you put yourself out there, you risk rejection or pushback. Confidence and determination help balance vulnerability (displaying strength through weakness, as Crowe puts it). 

Authentic feelings, responses and behaviors engage people, affording you respect and trust. Trusting employees are more likely to be fulfilled. When employees thrive, companies flourish.

This blog originally appeared on scholzandassociates.com.