How to Become an Authentic Leader

“Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.” — Harvard Business Review, January 2015

You may have a powerful position, but that doesn’t automatically make you a good leader.  Authentic leaders have insight, integrity, and impact.  They engender trust in their employees by ‘walking the talk.’

The concept of authentic leadership was introduced by management expert Bill George in 2003.  In his book, Authentic Leadership, George describes this style of leadership as being consistent with a leader’s personality and core values, and as one that is honest, ethical, and practical.  An authentic leader empowers employees and is comfortable in her own skin.

A leader who is truly authentic is willing to give employees credit for success and takes the blame for failures.  He leads with both his head and his heart.  This doesn’t mean that such a leader can’t make tough calls; it means the leader is passionate, empathic, courageous, and cautious.

The elusive quality known as executive presence is found in authentic leaders.  Although executive presence is hard to describe, most people say they recognize it when they see it.  When a leader enters a room and people are instantly drawn to them, that’s executive presence.  These leaders are both approachable and influential.  In an article entitled The Science of Influence, Suzanne Bates identifies the three dimensions of executive presence as style, substance, and character.

Servant leadership, defined as the philosophy of focusing first on the needs of employees and customers, is common in authentic leaders.  A servant leader treats employees respectfully and takes the time to listen and to develop and encourage them.  This type of leader tends to be introspective and humble, caring more about others’ success than their own.

Best-selling author and management expert, Ken Blanchard refers to three questions he calls the ‘Ethics Check’ for leaders considering a decision:  1) Is it legal?, 2) Is it balanced?, and 3) How will it make me feel about myself?  I think the following quote by Blanchard says it all:  “There are two aspects to leading with integrity.  The first is knowing the right thing to do.  The second is doing it.”

An authentic leader is not afraid of making mistakes, being wrong, or not having all the answers.  Such a leader is also flexible and adaptable enough to relate to different generations, as well as being culturally intelligent and comfortable with diversity.  An authentic leader challenges, questions, problem-solves, and invests in relationships.

Emotional intelligence or EQ is another quality critical to authentic leaders, which includes being self-aware, as well as having self-control and empathy.  The ability to lead in a way that inspires people is due in part, to leading with emotion.  As human beings, neither leaders nor employees should be expected to check their emotions at the door.  An authentic leader is able to read employees’ emotions and respond appropriately.  This doesn’t mean, however; that a leader doesn’t hold people accountable, but rather that situations are handled in a humane way.  The good news here is that characteristics of emotional intelligence can be learned and improved upon.  Whereas cognitive intelligence remains relatively stable throughout one’s lifetime, emotional intelligence does not.  So, if you don’t happen to be a natural born leader with overflowing EQ, all is not lost.


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