The notion of authentic leadership has been around for some time – as far back as ancient Greek philosophy: “To thine own self be true”1.
When we consider the term today, we often think of it in a positive light. It conjures up images of reliability, genuineness, trust and honesty. We feel safe around authentic leaders because we feel understood and that that someone is going to act in the right way for us. But what does being an authentic leader really mean?
When thinking of people who embody authenticity, we might consider the likes of Joe Biden, Martin Luther King, Jr, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Jacinda Ardern, Condoleezza Rice, the list goes on. Leaders like Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Sadam Hussein, etc. don’t necessarily fit in our version of authentic, but why? If authenticity is primarily about being true to oneself, then Putin, Trump and Hussein are certainly authentic.
If we strip authenticity down to its basic meaning of being true to yourself, then most leaders, be they the Jacinda Arderns or Donald Trumps of the world, can be labelled as authentic, but as we can see, being authentic doesn’t always mean being effective.
Your authentic self will work in some contexts, but not all
For authenticity to truly thrive, context is everything. Certain behaviours can be lauded in one work environment but loathed in another. For example, if your authentic self is highly creative but you’ve somehow found yourself in a career that doesn’t nurture or need that ability, it is probably worth considering whether it’s the right role for you. Likewise, having high ambition and powerful drive – both objectively good traits – can have the unintended consequence of leaving others feeling alienated with some of the decisions you make or the way you interact with them.
Personality psychometrics help leaders to better understand their preferences, and why they might excel in some areas of their work but fall short in others. The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) is a particularly illuminating way of measuring the dark side of personality and how certain qualities that emerge in times of increased stress can become disruptive. Couple this with an objective judgement from an experienced business psychologist to hold the mirror up and give leaders a chance to reflect on their behaviour, the space for leadership growth can be created.
How you can balance authenticity with personal development
It’s no secret that as business psychologists, Kiddy is all about helping leaders to affect change – change in their capabilities, leadership style and approach to leading. Change could be seen as the enemy of authenticity, as though one’s true self is not enough and that it must be improved, but we would argue that you can still develop without losing your fundamental sense of self.
Putting individuals through stretch assignments, such as business simulations, provides an opportunity for personality traits and behaviour to play out in a safe space. Authentic leadership “places emphasis on the development of self-knowledge and self-awareness”2, and measuring people against leadership capabilities will give leaders structured insight into their awareness of self. These insights can create meaningful change in how a leader might respond in certain scenarios as they navigate through their career.
Fake it to you make it
Leadership assessment is a great way to identify strengths and how they can be leveraged, but it also highlights development opportunities. The gap between where a leader is and where they need to get to can be daunting, especially when they feel they need to ‘fake it’ to appear more capable. This might seem at odds with authenticity, but another way to look at it is by developing a healthy curiosity and a willingness to try and learn to a leader’s toolkit; all of which accelerates their development. As our research into the Future of Leadership has revealed, curiosity and having a growth mindset are key to improving performance and making leaders more well-rounded. This research has also revealed that leaders don’t need to be experts to be effective; they need to be open and aware and they need to trust others to deliver.
At the end of the day, knowledge is power and the more self-awareness a leader has, the more able they will be to approach challenging workplace situations and relationships successfully. Maintaining a sense of self and developing one’s style or adapting one’s approach are not contradictory, they’re important skills and abilities that will lead to improved performance.