A leader who is authentic is one believed to be genuine and self-aware (Northouse, 2016). You might be able to think of a few bosses you’ve had that you believed were genuine and authentic in their dealings with you. But how can you be a more authentic leader? How is authenticity developed? Just as different people may view how authenticity is expressed differently, researchers also define authentic leadership differently. The idea of authentic leadership is relatively new and became more important after many of the corporate scandals in the early 2000s, like Enron (Northouse, 2016). People wanted leaders they could trust. As such, the idea of authentic leadership is still being explored, but there are practical applications that can guide you to being a better leader.
One way to look at authentic leadership is understanding who you are (Northouse, 2016). There are certain dimensions that make up authentic leadership: purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline and heart (George, 2003, as cited in Northouse, 2016). In a nutshell, you need to understand your purpose, have strong values of the right thing to do, establish trusting relationships, demonstrate self-discipline and be passionate about your mission (George, 2003, as cited in Northouse, 2016). You have different levels of these characteristics, and you have an opportunity to develop them to be an authentic leader.
As a leader, you need to understand your purpose (Northouse, 2016), which might be the most important characteristic in authentic leadership (Pennsylvania State University, 2018). Understanding your purpose is understanding what you are about and where you are going (Northouse, 2016). But you also have to be passionate about what you do, and be inspired by your goals (Northouse, 2016). Personally, I know there’s a good chance I will not be in a senior leadership position in my organization, but I know I can have a positive effect on our organization at a mid-management level. My goals are to continue to deliver results to my section of the organization and to develop and invest in my followers. I’m passionate about what I do and enjoy achieving results that are seen through positive exposure for the people I serve. I embrace my purpose.
You also need to understand your values and treat others based on those values (Northouse, 2016). Authentic leaders do the right thing during tough times and do not compromise who they are (Northouse, 2016). An authentic leader will come out of a tough situation with stronger values, not compromised ones, as we often unfortunately see in the news headlines (Northouse, 2016). If you’re not strongly committed to your values, you are more likely to abandon them during times of stress. If your values are not strong, it’s easier to get yourself into gray areas or crossing lines that you know shouldn’t be crossed. One line leads to another, and then another, and before you know it, you turn around and you’re in a place you never expected to be as a leader. But if you know your values, those decisions are more focused and consistent. No, you shouldn’t fudge the sales numbers this month because they won’t be caught until you can make it up some other way. No, you shouldn’t keep information from the board that you know you need to tell them. No, you shouldn’t make your followers work late hours to get the report done because you want to get to the gym instead. Your values should guide you to do the right thing, and your actions should outwardly validate those values. As I wrote in a post about servant leadership, my values are tied to my Christian faith. Growing in my faith should grow my leadership and vice versa. If I’m behaving as a leader in a way that goes against my values, it hurts my faith walk. To do the right thing, we must be careful with our actions and we must know what our values are to act our best.
Connectedness through strong relationships is also important. You need to be available as a leader and you need to be transparent (Northouse, 2016). Followers want to trust their leaders (Northouse, 2016), and developing trust requires building a relationship. Communication is way to do this. High quality communication and interactions with all followers will develop relationship. This is related to a leadership theory called leader-member exchange. In this theory, leadership is more effective by having high quality exchanges with all members of your team, leading to trust, respect and a feeling of obligation (Northouse, 2016). It all leads to high productivity (Northouse, 2016). To be an authentic leader, you need to connect with your followers.
Being consistent with self-discipline is also important because it helps you keep focus and determination (Northouse, 2016). Self-discipline helps you reach your goals and keep your followers accountable (Northouse, 2016). It’s also related to your values, because it helps you do your work in a way that aligns with them (Northouse, 2016). If you’re not self-disciplined, you may more easily bend the rules and go against your values. It allows you to be consistent, even in times of crisis or stress (Northouse, 2016). Your followers will see a leader who is predictable (Northouse, 2016). They will know how you will act in situations and what to expect from you (Northouse, 2016). Something small, but important, for me is answering my follower’s emails. This is important because I can’t help them achieve our goals if they’re waiting on me to answer them with information they may need. That requires self-discipline. It would certainly be easier to ignore my email some days, but then I wouldn’t be consistent for my followers. I have my email set up to flag any email from a follower into a special folder. I then check that folder twice a day and answer all emails in it. My followers are not intimidated to ask me for things because of this small gesture. It also sets a level of accountability for others on the team. If I’m answering emails, others feel a need to not ignore email either.
Lastly, having compassion and heart are important for authentic leadership. As a compassionate leader, you must be in tune with what others are going through and offer help. As a leader, you need to listen to your followers and learn who they are and learn their life stories (Northouse, 2016). Listening is an important aspect of learning to show heart. When listening, make eye contact and be fully engaged, don’t interrupt others (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). Give your attention to only one thing, the person; be attentive and relaxed so that you can organize what you are hearing; relate to what you are hearing through your own life experience; and then appropriately respond (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). Response could be something as simple as a verbal cue to reinforce that you are listening; or it could be a paraphrase of what you just hear, for example (Gamble & Gamble, 2013). These steps are related to the stages of perception, and they can help you have meaningful communication with your followers. Sometimes, just knowing another person understands can help and show compassion. Just from my own experience, I have seen how compassion makes a leader relatable. One time, I needed surgery and had to take extended time off from work. The leader came to me and offered to donate me some of his time off to me. That small gesture changed my perception of him and made me see him as more authentic and caring for his employees. I didn’t ask for help, but he knew enough about my situation that he acted on his own.
Being an authentic leader means doing the right thing, being honest with yourself and others and working for a common good (Northouse, 2016). You can’t go wrong with developing the characteristics we’ve discussed to be more authentic to your followers.
Gamble, T. K., & Gamble, M. W. (2013). Leading with communication: A practical approach to leadership communication.Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7thed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University. (2018). Authentic leadership approaches.Work attitudes and job motivation — PSYCH 484. Online course lesson, Penn State World Campus. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1942231/modules/items/25010904