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The foundation of leadership is authenticity. PDF Print E-mail
Blog - Building Trust
Written by Karl Smith   
Saturday, 23 July 2011 08:04
How do we go about expressing ourselves more authentically?  Ask yourself two simple questions: “Do our actions originate from deep within ourselves, or are they coming from a more superficial, limited place?”  “Is our leadership arising from our character, the essence of who we are?”  “Or is it only coming from our persona, the external personality we’ve created to cope with lifes circumstances.”

The idea “authentic leadership” originates with the Humanistic School of psychology that emerged in the 1960's which notes that we cannot help others unless we share ourselves openly and honestly - that we are "real".

What do the words "authentic leader" actually mean? What truly makes one and why is it worth the effort to become one? There are many different answers to these questions. Goffee and Jones (2005) make the point that a leader cannot define herself as an authentic leader.

Only the people who experience the leader can ascribe authenticity to the leader. Authenticity is only perceived by others. It is the perception that the leader is real, sincere, and defined by honesty and integrity.

These authors state that no one can declare, "I am authentic." That attribute must be ascribed by others. Authenticity, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is being genuine. Genuine, suggests Webster means not being hypocrite.  

The following five qualities serve as guidance to make a commitment to the lifelong process of authentically growing as a person in order to grow as an authentic leader.  

•    Authentic leaders have insight. Sometimes we refer to this as vision, but that usually has exclusive reference to the future. While leaders must have vision, they need more. They need wisdom and discernment. They need to be able to look at complex situations, gain clarity, and determine a course of action. They need to stand firmly on principle, even in the face of opposition.

•    Authentic leaders demonstrate initiative. They go first. They don’t sit on the sidelines. They don’t ask others to do what they are unwilling to do themselves. Instead, they lead by example. They are more concerned about acting on good ideas rather than having the ideas.

•    Authentic leaders exert influence. It’s no coincidence that influence and influenza (the flu) come from the same root word. Real leaders are contagious. People “catch” what they have. People are drawn to their vision and their values. They are able to gather a following and move people to act. People have a clear understanding of their intent and agendas.

•    Authentic leaders have impact. At the end of the day, leaders make a difference. The world is changed because of their leadership. They are able to create real and lasting change. They have the humility to take full responsibility and to serve everyone at the same time. They seek to recognize contribution rather than being recognised for making it.

•    Authentic leaders exercise integrity.  Not every leader is benevolent. Adolf Hitler was a leader, as was Mao Tsehong and Josef Stalin. They had insight, initiative, influence and impact. Yet their lives were not integrated with the highest values. Integrity — or the lack thereof — ultimately determines the quality of a persons impact.

“Integrity” comes from the same Latin root as the words “integrated “and “integer”. A person has integrity when there is no gap between intent and behaviour...when he or she is whole, seamless, the same – inside and out. In essence, this is the foundation of authentic leadership: it is this quality which lack in leadership today. The absence thereof results in mistrust and a lack of credibility.

So to be truly genuine - or authentic - leaders require a few things: To ensure that ones corporate actions and rhetoric realigns; to ensure that such actions are meaningful (as opposed to superficial, headline-grabbing actions that don’t take root beyond the organisation’s need for disingenuous publicity); and to ensure that ones public persona and private core are not at odds.

In contrast, most leaders of today's best-run corporations and government organisations remain silent. Are they afraid that by speaking out they may invite scrutiny of their entities? Although the global trend to effect changes in regulations - to curb unethical leadership behaviour - is appropriate and necessary, they do not address the deeper issues at stake here. It is impossible to legislate integrity, stewardship, and sound governance. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the imperative of selecting leaders that create healthy corporations and government agencies for the long term.

We do not need executives running corporations and government entities into the ground in search of personal gain. We do not need celebrities to lead organisations. We do not need more laws. We do not need more conferences. We do not need more excuses and apologies. We do not need more task teams and disciplinary committees. We do not need more tough talk. We do not need more cronyism. We need new leadership.

We need authentic leaders, people of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organisations. We need leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values. We need leaders who are more concerned about what is right than being right. We need leaders who have the courage to build their organisations to meet the needs of all their stakeholders, and who recognise the importance of their service to society.

The general public must stop playing a role in encouraging this inauthentic leadership as well. In idealising high-profile personalities that ran companies - wrecked by corporate scandals and vote questionable individuals into power, we make them into heroes.

Search committees and voters alike fall into the trap of choosing leaders for their style rather than their substance, for their image instead of their integrity. Given this way of doing business, why should we be surprised when our leaders come up short?  

It is always exciting when our most urgent need and our greatest opportunity coincide.  In both the public and the private sectors we have an urgent need for great leadership.  Not just any old great leadership, but authentic, great leadership.

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