Authentic leadership – the latest fad or an essential quality?

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This is a guest post from Amanda Heath of Leadership Matters.  We’ve known Amanda and her work at a number of organisations over a long period of time.  Here is a great article she’s written for us on Authentic Leadership.  Amanda’s website details are at the end of the post.

"Whenever I talk about authentic leadership I am met with all sorts of interesting responses.  They range from outright cynicism, to a vague notion that ‘it’s the latest way you are supposed to lead’ and even passionate speeches on just how important it is. 

The one thing people have in common however are examples of where they felt they had not been authentically led.  They could clearly recall and feel how destructive the experience was and how it directly affected them and consequently business outcomes. 

The depressing truth is that there are a lot of leaders out there who think they are better than they actually are. 

What is authentic leadership really? 

The belief that you go to work and have to be someone else to get on is outdated and unhelpful.  It’s perfectly natural to expect that the kind of person you are and the experiences and beliefs you have are inextricably linked to what kind of leader you are. 

So when the pressure is on leaders must know when to switch from operator to leader mode and take the time and trouble to genuinely engage their teams at a human level, and this can only be achieved by being authentic.  The reality that’s often overlooked is that people will only become engaged (or not) based on how they feel during interactions with their leader – not by clever corporate communications or engagement initiatives.

The crucial factors to authentic leadership are;

  • pursuing a genuine purpose with passion, and the courage to stay true to it through turbulent times (which is most of the time anyway)
  • finding the balance of showing just enough of your true self, maintaining an appropriate distance and conforming to the environment
  • knowing when you need to switch focus from yourself to others
  • understanding and then shaping the context
  • skilfully communicating aims with a low enough ego to then genuinely listen and understand others’ perspectives
  • ultimately creating material value through strong relationships

Obstacles to authentic leadership

There appears to be a lot of dissatisfied people in corporate life these days – and that adds up to a lot of wasted opportunities and productivity which just doesn’t make sense particularly in a recession.  Why then, in these difficult times when businesses need every last bit of goodwill and productivity from their teams, is authentic leadership not at the top of the agenda? 

Whether it is the unrelenting pressure for results or the expectation to conform to politics, culture or process, the clear (but probably unintentional) message is that individual qualities such as initiative or judgement is not wanted nor valued in the same way society rates logic and knowledge over wisdom and instinct.  Ironically it is these very qualities leaders should harness for great ideas and results to flourish – after all nobody gets up in the morning wanting to do a bad job!

So what can be done about it?

By its very nature there is no magic formula to authentic leadership so an individual approach to developing it is the only way.  The first essential step for any aspiring authentic leader is to make sure he knows himself and how he is perceived by others because there is quite often a disparity between the intended impact and the impact that is actually felt which has a direct effect on morale and productivity.  

This is where 360 degree feedback is an invaluable opportunity to properly understand this.  With carefully considered criteria for measurement, professionally facilitated feedback and a clear action plan supported by regular coaching, this can be a giant step along the road to authenticity.

The bottom line is that there are so many advantages to authentic leadership that benefits everyone.  I recently met a well known and respected politician who spoke warmly of an authentic leader she had once reported to:  “We worked so hard, we would have done absolutely anything for him.  When he had to get the tough things done we totally understood and respected it.  He even managed to make people still feel good during tough times when things could so easily have turned very bad, and this was no doubt due to him being a skilled authentic leader”.



Amanda Heath

Leadership Matters

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