Authentic Leadership, Just Another Buzz Word?

I remember attending a conference in the UK on Leadership and being very impressed by their keynote speaker. He spoke about all the values that I aspire to in my own life; respect, courage, valuing difference, being vulnerable and hard working. An exceptionally powerful speaker, who had the audience in the palm of his hand for the full session, he received a standing ovation from the 500 people in the audience.

I was staying in the hotel that night and the following morning, when I went down for breakfast, who was at the table but the keynote speaker reading the newspaper. I decided that I would go over to him and complement him on his talk after he had finished his breakfast. A young waitress tending his table brought him some toast. The toast had only been put on the table when he let out a roar and said “I didn’t ask for white toast, I asked for brown, it can’t be that hard to get it right”. The young girl apologised and quickly scurried to the kitchen to rectify her mistake. She returned within a few minutes with hot brown toast only to be told that his coffee was now cold and that he wanted a fresh pot. For me, it was like watching the curtain blow back to reveal the true Wizard of Oz – my illusion was shattered.

Being an authentic leader is the new ‘buzz’ word around organisations these days. I have observed some important business leaders proclaim themselves as true authentic leaders. I no longer tend to be impressed by such titles and subjective expressions of self-worth but rather wait and observe their behaviour before passing judgement.

For me, authentic leadership is not a self-proclaimed title that one can bestow upon oneself. It is that “secret sauce” that makes you stand out from the pack. It is like precious gold which is rare to find but once you do you will easily recognise it.

In a recent article, Bill George discussed ‘The Truth About Authentic Leaders’. Here are some of his recommended steps people should undertake to develop a deeper understanding of themselves in order to become authentic leaders:

  • Explore their life stories and their crucibles in order to understand who they are. As leaders explore their life stories and process their experiences, they develop a deeper understanding of themselves and feel increasingly comfortable being authentic. This is a lifelong journey in which we are always discovering the next layer, much like peeling an onion.
  • Engage in reflection and introspective practices by taking time everyday to step back from the 24/7 world, turn off all electronics and reflect on what is most important. The key here is to set aside preoccupation with task lists, iphones and the latest news in order to reflect privately. In this way, the urgent does not take precedence over the important in one’s life and leaders examine how they are living their lives and engaging with the world around them.
  • Seeking honest feedback from colleagues, friends and the direct reports about themselves and their leadership. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to understand how other people see them, which is often quite different to how they want to be seen. To gain greater understanding of how they are coming across, authentic leaders obtain real-time feedback by listening to their ‘truth tellers’ who give them candid critiques of their leadership.
  • Understand their leadership purpose so they can align people around a common purpose. Purpose defines the unique gifts people bring to leadership challenges, through which they can align others with their purposes in order to create a positive impact.
  • Become skilled at tailoring their style to their audiences, imperatives of the situation and readiness of their teammates to accept different approaches. There are times when leaders have to make difficult decisions that are sure to displease people, and they’ll need to give tough feedback. At other times they need to be inspiring, good coaches and consensus builders. These flexible styles are not inauthentic if they come from a genuinely authentic place.

Bill George’s advice really resonates with me and my personal experience of dealing with some leaders. If I am to inspire people, I need to learn to work on myself first and focus on being authentic in the way Bill George describes. Long ago, I stopped being wowed by ‘organisations values’ as many are meaningless unless we understand the behaviours that are behind them. Don’t tell me that you put your employees first but rather let me witness it for myself in the actions and interactions that I see when I visit your office or talk to your teams.

As it used to say on my report card from school ‘Maurice is doing well, but could do better’, I guess the same could be said about my journey to become more authentic … I feel I am doing well but I know I can do better!

For the month of September let us Unleash our authentic selves (as described by Bill George) into our organisation and release some of that secret sauce!

Maurice Whelan,
Founder and Managing Director
Unleash Potential