As part of our ongoing effort to reclaim the term “authentic leadership” from its common association as a mere slogan, lip service, or stereotype, let’s explore some relevant authentic leadership characteristics. Seven, to be precise.
We hope that by the end of this article, you will have a better picture in mind of how an authentic leader shows up in the workplace… and that it may inform your process of imagining what you might look like when you show up as an authentic leader.
Let’s begin with the characteristic that provides access to all the others.
1. Self Awareness
Self-awareness can be thought of as a key that opens the door to growth in every other area of life. Through it, a person is able to identify and own their strengths… and perhaps more importantly, their growth areas.
Through self-awareness, a leader will learn to know and understand what they don’t know. They will also know and understand that there are plenty of things they don’t know they don’t know. In the process of discovery – or receiving feedback from others – self-awareness enables the authentic leader to discern when they are being defensive, or reacting from a place of ego.
Self awareness is absolutely crucial in minimizing the negative influences of the ego, and empowering a leader to grow and develop toward their full potential.
2. Servant Leadership
An authentic leader is highly likely to have personal goals and ambitions – but at the heart of his/her activities sits the spirit of service. Personal goals and ambitions become subservient to the aims of the organization. Such a leader is committed to the company’s vision and mission, to the people around him/her, and to the challenge of getting the entire team operating at 100% capacity.
Such a leader views the team’s work capacity as an extension of his/her personal capacity, and labors to provide the team with everything they need to operate at their best.
3. Empowering Others
The authentic leader actively engages and empowers the people around him/her.
If at any point, he/she is thinking: “I need to stop doing what I’m doing in order to be there for my team,” then he/she is at least partially missing the mark.
An authentic leader is likely to be aware that empowering others is not something he/she takes time out to do in addition to his/her job. It IS the job.
4. Mutual Trust and Respect
The authentic leader knows how painstaking it can be to forge trust among strangers in the workplace – and how quickly even a single act can shatter that trust.
Investing time and resources toward a new and inspired company culture, gifting team members with holiday bonuses, and/or company-expensed outings and team-building experiences can be quickly forgotten in a workplace where people behave disrespectfully toward each other.
The authentic leader models trust and respect in his/her speech and behavior, treating team members in good faith and with respect even when he/she is under stress.
“I just blow off steam from time to time” is no excuse for publicly tongue-lashing in the workplace, or even raising one’s voice to a pitch that activates the fight-or-flight response in a co-worker.
The authentic leader models mutual trust and respect.
Honesty could be said to belong at the top of this list. It certainly does, and should, in our individual lives.
However, in a business environment, things can be more nuanced. For example, members of a work team that have not yet achieved interpersonal trust and respect do not have incentive to practice full honesty with each other.
Why is this so?
Because full honesty can open the door to conflict and disagreement. Without a foundation of mutual trust and respect, people on a work team tend to err on the side of caution, civility, and inauthenticity with each other.
An authentic leader is willing to have the uncomfortable conversations that sometimes come along with honesty and transparency. For example, he/she is capable of respectfully and tactfully giving and receiving feedback.
The authentic leader’s willingness to be honest, and to value honesty in others, is highly likely to infuse his/her team or organization with a tendency toward forthright communication and open dialogue.
Therefore, an authentic leader values honesty, and possesses the emotional intelligence to be honest AND respectful at all times.
Long, long ago, before we experienced the cares and struggles of life, we were small children. We ran, we laughed, we loved, we wept, and did everything else in a completely authentic way. We were whole, and completely ourselves.
Then we got hurt, somewhere somehow, and we grew up.
In order to protect ourselves from ever being hurt again, in order to get what we wanted (or to avoid what we didn’t want), we developed outer layers and facades.
An authentic leader has undergone some kind of quest and reclaimed that child, laying beneath the layers and facades. The authentic leader has access to the person they were in their earliest days. That person without fixed beliefs and behaviors.
Most importantly, the authentic leader can share that part of him/herself. He/she can be vulnerable.
The authentic leader understands that instead of being a weakness, vulnerability can be great strength that increases the quality of his/her workplace relationships – not to mention increasing his/her enjoyment and satisfaction with work specifically, and life generally.
Such vulnerable leaders can often be very inspiring, refreshing and enjoyable to collaborate with.
An authentic leader has access to courage. He/she can take up a cause, face uncertainty, take calculated risks, and lead other people in volatile, uncertain times.
Since the authentic leader inhabits a paradigm of service to a larger whole, instead of merely the self; since he/she focuses on empowering others and bringing out the best in each person, he/she finds the resources and grit within necessary to confront difficulties head-on.
We trust these seven authentic leadership characteristics have been of some help in your process of imagining how an authentic leader shows up. And how you will be showing up as you continue your growth and development, and fully embrace authentic leadership over the course of your career.
Happy New Year!