What is authentic leadership and how do you practise it?

Russian nesting dolls on a light blue pedestal.
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t be yourself at work? Have you seen colleagues struggle to show up as their full authentic self – either because they didn’t feel safe to be themselves or because it was not condoned or rewarded? Maybe you had to act more ambitious than you are, stay out drinking or tone down your playfulness or creativity to fit in.
Our need for authenticity – where what we say and do reflects our true thoughts and feelings – is increasingly becoming part of the conversation about how to build leaders and cultures of the future. The idea of authentic leadership is often connected to the search for our own freedom, fulfilment, and job satisfaction. But with all this talk about being authentic at work, there is not enough conversation about the evidence-based approach and truly effective ways to do this in a workplace.
So, how do you become an authentic leader and what are the benefits?
In this blog, we’ll explore:
  • What is authentic leadership
  • Myths and misconceptions about authentic leadership
  • Attributes and characteristics of authentic leaders
  • Benefits of an authentic leadership style
  • How to practice authentic and ethical leadership

What is authentic leadership?

For Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, authenticity meant being the author of one’s own life. He saw this as a difficult process of always striving for balance in the process of realising one’s needs, while living together with others in such a way that meets the needs of those relationships.
This means that authenticity requires us to have an understanding of ourselves, to have an awareness of our inner emotional states and have the ability and courage to openly discuss these emotional states with others.
In psychology, authenticity is characterised as the dynamic operation of four components:
  • Self-reflection and awareness
  • Unbiased processing
  • Appropriate transparency
  • Value alignment
When we consider authenticity in the context of leadership, it’s about embracing these four components in order to lead from a place where we are in alignment with our values and expressing ourselves genuinely.
Humans have an innate drive towards being genuine or real. We first experience this awareness of being real or fake in adolescence. Research by trailblazing psychologist Dr Susan Harter found that adolescents actually report negative psychological states associated with being fake, and they just prefer to be themselves.
This has interesting flow-on effects for workplaces. Harter’s research suggests that in the workplace if people cannot be themselves, this sets the tone for their attitude to work and they experience negative inner psychological states, which creates a barrier to doing their best work.
Conversely, when leaders are free to adopt or develop their own leadership style – so long as that style is consistent with their own character and values – they lead authentically which, in turn, cultivates connection, builds rapport and makes them a better leader.
Inkling insight: We’re highly attuned to when someone is not being authentic and naturally pull away, so that inability to be authentic or that tendency to lean away from our authentic selves, gets in the way of trust and connection and collaboration.

Myths and misconceptions about leading with authenticity

Authenticity is closely tied to transparency and honesty, but authentic leadership doesn’t mean you need to let it all hang out or overshare. Before we explore the attributes and characteristics that make authentic leaders, let’s take a look at what an authentic leader is not.

Myth: authentic leadership means being honest all the time.

When it comes to the behaviours of authentic leaders, there’s a common misconception that authentic leaders are honest all the time. In order to explore what honesty means in the context of leadership, we first need to understand why individuals lie. Generally, lies fall into two categories:
  • Self-centred lies to make ourselves look good or as a means of self-preservation. For example, we might say “yes, I’ve read that book” in order to fit in and appear to be on the same level as the person we’re conversing with.
  • Other-centred lies to protect others and preserve a connection. For example, a leader may not deliver feedback in a direct way as they fear a loss of connection with the team member they’re providing feedback to.
When it comes to honesty in business and the workplace, leaders curate and frame the truths that are beneficial for members of their team to know. And rather than pretending they know everything to “save face”, authentic leaders will lean into the discomfort of sharing truths with team members in a constructive way. They’ll put their hand up and say “I haven’t read that book, I’d love to hear what you took away from it?”. They will admit they don’t have all the answers. And they will provide clear feedback and hold space for team members to grow and develop which, in turn, strengthens the connection.

Myth: sharing personal information is part of authentic leadership.

While sharing personal stories or anecdotes can help us connect, sharing all the intimate details of what’s happening in your personal life and stories with your colleagues is not a requirement of authentic leadership. Instead, it’s about sharing information that’s contextually relevant in order to establish or strengthen bonds, share a different point of view or seek feedback from a colleague.

Myth: authentic leaders are emotionally vulnerable.

Vulnerability in the context of leadership is often misunderstood. It’s important to remember that vulnerability is part of transparency in communication. Vulnerability creates space to be imperfect but it’s not about being overly emotional or sharing information excessively – that can be inappropriate and create cause for disconnection.
Instead, authentic leaders express vulnerability by acting with integrity and openness – not feel compelled to be the first to answer or come up with an idea which creates space for collaboration and connection.
Inkling insight: While transparency is 100 percent needed to build relationships that are genuine, honest, open and collaborative, leaders must be mindful to share appropriately to avoid causing damage.

Characteristics of authentic leaders based on authentic leadership theory

When it comes to succeeding at work, we’ve all heard old-school maxims like “fake it ‘til you make it”, “loose lips sink ships”, “nice guys finish last” and “failure is not an option”.
These commonly held beliefs are frequently uttered when it comes to how we conduct ourselves in our career. Coupled with the innate human desire to feel a sense of belonging, these catchphrases make a dangerous cocktail of misguided advice for leaders and team members alike.
Yet they couldn’t be further from the characteristics and behaviours of a successful authentic leader. In fact, authenticity is key when it comes to leadership. Let’s take a look at the hallmarks of an authentic leader through the lens of authentic leadership theory.
Created by academic Bill George, authentic leadership theory provides a framework for leaders to understand their purpose, feel better equipped and develop qualities that enable them to lead in alignment with their authentic selves.
The model purports that authentic leaders are characterised by five observable qualities which can be developed over time:
  • Purpose which manifests itself as passion.
  • Core values which are expressed through behaviours.
  • Connectedness in relationships.
  • Self-discipline which is shown in determination and focus.
  • Compassion from the heart.
Ultimately, authentic leaders operate in alignment with their personal values. They influence and inspire others in the organisation by “lifting their veil” and revealing their true selves. In doing this, they humanise work operations, demonstrate credibility and build trust with those around them.

Benefits of authentic leadership

Authentic leadership is vital in organisations. In fact, Harvard Business Review reported that “authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership” with its benefits to individuals and organisations alike far-reaching.
Authenticity builds trust and psychological safety which leads to better connection, motivation, collaboration, and ability to make decisions even in the face of challenges. Part of that comes from appropriate transparency which creates a culture and a safe space for others to do the same for people to come to you and people will look directly to the leader, to know what’s acceptable and what’s not.
At Inkling, working in organisational development, we tend to see that teams with authentic leaders demonstrate consistent and progressive improvement in workplace engagement, performance, satisfaction and improved ability to manage conflict.

Authentic leadership development in action

In 2009, Dominos Pizza was facing a crisis. Sales were down and an unsightly video of two employees handling a pizza had gone viral for all the wrong reasons. The fallout of the brand was almost immediate along with a big turn down in stock price. Instead of dancing around the grumblings of people unhappy with their brand, they faced this criticism head-on under the leadership of a newly appointed CEO, Patrick Doyle.
As the CEO of Dominos, Patrick Doyle took the company from a two billion valuation to nine billion and drove a 90-times increase in stock value in just five years. The incredible transformation is a story of reinvention which would have been impossible without Doyle’s authentic leadership approach.
Under Doyle’s leadership, Domino’s were completely transparent about their weaknesses, sharing them both inside the business with team members and opening up about them to their customers – even taking to their marketing. They took a risk and launched a heart-centred advertising campaign admitting that their pizzas tasted terrible and invited Americans to give them a second chance.
As a result of embracing authenticity in leadership and on an organisational level, Domino’s demonstrated self-awareness and transparency which created a safe space for genuine feedback and helped build trust. Social media was buzzing with positive feedback and commentary from now loyal customers that were once critics. And the positive sentiment was reflected in the company’s balance sheet with the valuation and stock price skyrocketing.
Inkling insight: At a micro level, authentic leadership is really about how we have those conversations, one-to-one, and that builds trust over time. By way of context, at Inkling, we had some concerns about how a client we were working with was operating. Initially, we didn’t say anything, and we were managing it in the background. When we actually picked up the phone and had a really open and transparent conversation it resulted in us building one of the most trusting client relationships we’ve ever had.

Becoming an authentic leader: how to practise an authentic leadership style

While some people show early signs of leadership capability, leadership isn’t a birthright or innate skill — it’s something that’s developed over time and shaped by experience.
Penned by Bill George in 2003, Authentic Leadership was “intended as a clarion call to the new generation to learn from negative examples like Enron, WorldCom and Tyco” according to the author and Harvard Business School fellow. George suggests that authentic leadership is built on character not style and defines authentic leaders as ethical, moral and character-based leaders.
In the research for her book, Going to the Top, Carol Gallagher examined more than 200 women who have successfully climbed the corporate ladder to the top. The research supports George’s view showing that every woman who had reached those executive levels had signature characteristics that everyone knew. Whether it was an obsession with high heeled shoes, or they were manic about a sports team, people knew what they were, and they were able to talk to those quirks.
While authentic leadership is about tapping into your own true north, it’s also something that can be shaped through experiences and developed over time. At Inkling, we recommend leaders consider the following four key areas when seeking to develop their authentic leadership practice:
  • Self-awareness
  • Unbiased processing
  • Appropriate transparency
  • Value alignment
Let’s explore how to put these four areas into practice through authentic leadership characteristics.

Continually strive to be self-aware

Humans are unique and complex with multiple authentic selves that can be called upon as circumstances require. Authentic leaders embrace this multiplicity. They are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and know how to draw on them and use them depending on the situation. Getting a coach, completing validated personality or psychometric tools or undertaking a leadership program to build your emotional intelligence will significantly increase your self-awareness. We often can’t do self-awareness on our own. We need someone or something to hold up the mirror.

Work on unbiased processing

A study conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Diego, indicates that each day people consume around 100,000 words of information — equivalent to 34 gigabytes of data per day being processed by the human brain. That’s a lot of data.
When it comes to authentic behaviour in the workplace, it’s important to practice unbiased processing of information so as to avoid distorting, denying, exaggerating or ignoring positive and negative information about oneself. Put simply, it’s being aware of your biases and how they relate to your perception of self and others, and how they impact decision making. Again working with a coach or completing work to assess your unconscious bias and your personal thinking errors is critical. Our biases are often unconscious meaning we are not consciously aware!

Find the right balance of transparency

Employee engagement increases, productivity lifts and company culture improves when leaders are transparent with team members. But there is such a thing as too much transparency.
As we’ve already learned, authenticity is not about sharing everything or sharing deeply. Rather, it’s about sharing relevant information in a way that cultivates connection and builds trust. Think of transparency in the workplace as giving people a broad view and window into who you are – not sharing your deepest desires or darkest secrets. Adaptability is key here.
Inkling insight: Transparency can create a sense of trust and connection. A really good way to do this is through sharing experiences – such as how you navigated significant challenges – and how those experiences have created development opportunities and shaped who you are today.

Align with your values

When we’re acting in alignment with our values we feel that we’re expressing ourselves genuinely. Conversely, when we profess our values but do not enact them it affects us negatively – decreasing our sense of self and impeding our ability to lead.
Being able to identify and articulate values is a skill in and of itself and requires self-awareness work. Once values have been identified, it’s much easier to determine if a behaviour is in alignment with values or take action if needed. We need to ensure we do more than just identify our values; we need to clarify the behaviours that align with those values to know we are acting in integrity. No one lives their values all the time but without clarifying the behaviours we are often more misaligned that we realise.
Inkling insight: Have you ever wondered how to know if you’re living your values? The first step is self-awareness work to identify and articulate values so that you can then assess if you’re enacting them in your day-to-day operations.

Leadership development program: strengthen authentic leadership skills

Being an effective leader is about acting in alignment with values and your most authentic self, it’s not a birthright. Developing an authentic leadership practice is something that can be learned and also evolves over time.
We hope this blog has given you some ideas of ways to ​​develop your authentic leadership and management skills individually and across your organisation. Get in touch with the Inkling team if you would like to find out more about how a tailored leadership development program could change and benefit your team. Learn more about our leadership programs.

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