Authenticity is a quality we hear more and more about these days, and it’s become the gold standard for leadership. Robert S. Kaplan, Professor of Leadership Development at the Harvard Business School says, “Authenticity is critical to leadership. That means trying to be yourself – this involves some self-disclosure, admitting what you don’t know and being willing to ask questions.”
Authentic leadership is examined and taught in many areas of academia and business, but a simplistic understanding of it can be an undermining hinderance rather than an empowering addition to our skillset. Authenticity can be an excuse to stick with what’s comfortable, to defend less helpful aspects of our character, or to overshare in ways that undermine others’ confidence in us.
To quote Mind Tools, “Authenticity means you’re true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you’re under to act otherwise. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes. Your values, ideals, and actions align. As a result, you come across as genuine, and you’re willing to accept the consequences of being true to what you consider to be right.”
For authenticity to be part of a leadership toolset, whether in our personal or professional lives, it must come as a part of a basket of other characteristics; some of these have already been mentioned above. It must accompany such traits as honesty, responsibility and a strong sense of values and ideals. It must accompany respect, integrity and trust. As with all these traits, it must be powered by courage.
Whenever I’ve done a corporate team exercise to determine the values that team would like their business to embody, “honesty, respect, integrity and trust” are always amongst the top few. This is never a surprise. In fact, it tells a predictable and rather beautiful story of what we all expect from a team (at work or at home) and what we’d all like to be a part of.
It’s human nature to want to feel safe and to be a part of something greater than ourselves. When those around us are honest, even when that honesty is not always what we’d like to hear, it allows us to feel that we know what’s coming and we don’t have to spend our lives on high alert, looking out for harmful things we can’t see. It allows us to feel safe. However, it would be detrimental if our honesty lacked respect. Respect adds an element of care, compassion and concern for others to the way we deliver our honesty.
Integrity means that we are consistent in every arena of our lives, regardless of the pressure we may come under in any of those areas. We stick to our belief system and others know what to expect from us at any time. They know they can count on us. Integrity includes being able to maintain our honesty and respect always, and with all people.
This kind of consistency is what builds trust. Giving and receiving trust in an environment that is tried and tested is where we’d all like to hang out. It’s where we’d all like to live, love, work and grow. But these are not small asks.
In my opinion, authenticity is an indicator of one’s ability to integrate all these abovementioned characteristics together as part of a core belief system and to use that belief system to consistently navigate life. To do this consistently requires courage, and courage not being the absence of fear but action in spite of it, is something I deeply respect.
As part of this bucket of traits, authenticity is not only what makes people feel safe and trusting, but it’s what allows them to become more of themselves too.
How many of us have held ourselves to impossible standards until we’ve reached a stage of burnout because we believed that was the mark? We’ve believed that everyone around us was doing so easily because no one else ever showed any cracks. Until we all burn out together, or we lose someone whose body couldn’t keep it up.
How many of us don’t ask for help or share a problem when we’re uncertain of how to move forward because we don’t want to be the only one asking questions or seeming unknowledgeable? And yet, how many of us would help willingly and without judgement if we knew who needed that help?
How many around us aren’t fully using their skills and strengths because they’d rather fit in than stand out and get it wrong; rather keep their head down than blossom into what they were made to be, withholding the contribution of their full energy from their success and that of their team?
How many around us are clogged up or even paralysed by the things that are going on in their lives when they choke them down without processing them – because no one around them has broken the silence on expression of emotion and they don’t want to be the messy one? Instead, they are just one of many who are paralysed.
When we are dishonest about what we need, or when we simply don’t do the work to articulate our needs honestly in favour of brushing people off with a short or “less than” response, we deny others the ability to support us. We stop the creation of a safe space in which everyone can grow to be more.
We deny others the opportunity to follow our lead and be courageously authentic. We deny them the opportunity to step into their strengths, and we often deny ourselves proper understanding of our own needs until those needs are disproportionate and debilitating.
Leadership of self is about honesty, respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, authenticity and courage. Anyone who wishes to lead others effectively must first lead themselves. When we can lead ourselves with strength that takes the 3 R’s into account (Respect for self; Respect for others; Responsibility for all our actions), then we create a safe space within which others can grow into their own because they trust us, and they learn to trust themselves.
by Christen Killick
February 14th, 2022