Authentic Leaders Are Great Leaders — Are You?

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By Joanie Connell

How many times have you heard or said this about leadership communications at your company: “It’s just the party line” or “It’s all just corporate double talk” or “Why bother going to the meeting; they won’t tell us what’s really going on”?

Why is authenticity important? Authenticity can differentiate good leaders from bad ones. Authenticity can motivate employees to perform and be loyal to the organization. Authenticity can also solidify trust in relationships well beyond the organization. Authenticity is more than just being open or telling the truth. It requires an awareness of yourself and your values.

What Is Authenticity?

Businessman standing in the city

Authenticity is:

  • Being true to yourself.
  • Being open with others.
  • Being honest, doing the right thing.

Defining authenticity is one thing, but how do you know what authenticity looks like?  How do you know if someone is truly open and honest? What behaviors demonstrate authenticity? Think about leaders you know personally or from the news and history. Which ones do you think are authentic? How does their authenticity show through?

Here are a few examples of authentic leaders to get you started:

• Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Civil Rights Movement
• Sam Palmisano, former CEO of IBM
• Oprah Winfrey, actress, former television show host
• Jack Welch, former CEO of GE
• Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox
• Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple
• Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady
• Warren Buffett, investor, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

All of these people exemplify authenticity by being in touch with themselves and speaking openly to others. For example, Steve Jobs said at his commencement address at Stanford University: “Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” He proceeded to explain why he dropped out of college. One of the students who helped choose Steve Jobs as the commencement speaker said they had expected him to talk about his successes, not his failures.

Authentic leaders are not afraid to talk about their failures. They are willing to share their mistakes and shortcomings. Warren Buffet said his biggest mistake was buying Berkshire Hathaway —“a 200-billion-dollar mistake.” Authentic leaders also talk about hardships they have overcome. Oprah Winfrey, for example, has been extremely open about her traumatic childhood.

And finally, authentic leaders speak candidly, as Ann Mulcahy did when she told her team members, “Hey, no games. Let’s just talk.” Eleanor Roosevelt also exemplified this in her notoriously candid autobiography.

Steps to Authenticity

Now that you know what authenticity is and what it looks like, you may be wondering, how do you become authentic? Most of us have been taught to “never show your weaknesses” and “put your best foot forward.” How do you take off the mask and speak from the heart instead? Before you can speak from your heart, you have to know who you are and what you stand for. This means increasing your self-awareness.

Self-Awareness: This is the first step to authentic leadership. You have to know who you are and what is important to you to be true to yourself. This may sound easy, but it really isn’t. Let me put on my psychologist hat for a moment and talk to you about self deception. We all know at least a little bit about denial, rationalization, repression, and narcissism. Yes, we all do it. The question is, to what extent?