Establishing yourself as an authentic leader is the first step in encouraging a culture of authenticity within your organisation, says Ash Beckham. And when you are authentic, the influence you can have on those around you is profound
Authenticity has become such a buzz word. From newsstands to hashtags, countless sources will give you trite instructions on how to be authentic. But that is not how authenticity works. No one can tell you if you are being authentic, only you can truly judge that. But when you are authentic, the influence you can have on those around you is profound.
The positive impacts that come from authentic leadership are widespread, but it cannot start without first understanding what authenticity looks like for you. There is no universal checklist or treasure map to get you there. It takes work and practice, and self-exploration is not for the faint of heart. But it can transform people, organisations and cultures.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get started.
Although authenticity looks unique and personal for each of us, we need to establish a common understanding of what we are seeking. Authenticity by definition is when one is true to one’s own personality, spirit or character. Which is nice on paper, but what does that look like in reality? To me authenticity is achieved when the person we see ourselves as (our inner self) and how we act in the world (our outer self) are aligned. For example, I see myself as and want to act like an inclusive leader and I take actions in various aspects of my life to actualise that vision, then I am in alignment – I am authentic. But if there is incongruity between how I see myself and how I act, I am inauthentic. So, if either I see myself as an inclusive leader, but I do not take action to promote inclusivity or if I actively promote inclusivity but do not see myself as a leader – I am in a state of inauthenticity.
We all know what it feels like to be inauthentic – that feeling of ‘poser’ syndrome. We know the feeling, but we can get stuck with no viable path out. The best part is that we always have the power to get ourselves back in alignment – back to authenticity. Either we change our actions to align with who we think we are, or we change our idea of who we are to align with our actions. By this measure, authenticity is not good or bad it is just a state of being. And that state changes constantly depending on both internal and external circumstances. How we adjust to that change is what defines us as an authentic leader.
Now that we have a common definition, why would we want to be authentic as a leader? Authenticity can feel vulnerable and risky. The voice in our heads yells loudly ‘If I show up as my full self, I can be exposed to repercussions or judgement that may negatively impact my career. Why would I put myself out there like that? If I hide the parts of myself that I perceive as open to judgement, I am safer’. The path of least resistance can be appealing. But the path of authenticity is much more rewarding. As we embark on this journey, we are guided by three traits of authentic leaders – consistency, self-awareness and a willingness to learn and grow.
The first practice of authentic leadership is consistency. Nothing erodes trust like unpredictability and people do not response well to volatile leaders. Prioritising consistency allows us to be more efficient. When you take the time and energy necessary to decide who you want to be in each situation or in a specific circle of people, that is inherently taking time and energy away from the task at hand. When you are authentic, you never have to decide who you should be because you are the same in every environment. This consistency establishes your personal leadership brand as someone with the steadiness, confidence and courage to be unwavering in their character and morals no matter the circumstances.
A second practice of authentic leadership is self-awareness. It is vital that we are constantly aware of our blind spots and how our inevitable subjectivity limits us. We have to be willing to examine where we fall short despite how difficult that may be. But the journey does not end with knowing, we must be willing to learn from those shortcomings. Another aspect of self-awareness is knowing the impact we have on others. Due to position or disposition, we can have a tremendous impact on how others see us and how they see themselves. To overestimate our impact can lead to arrogance and indifference. To underestimate our impact, discounts the potential we have as leaders. We must be humbly self-aware enough to find the sweet spot.
Feedback and criticism
Not only must we look inward to be more self-aware, but we must also be open to honest feedback and criticism. This is not a question of process but a mindset. You can send out all the surveys you want or promote an open-door policy, but if you are not creating an environment where people feel safe sharing their genuine feedback you are missing the point. People must believe they can be truthful without fear of consequence both in the moment and in the future. Establishing this safety not only empowers people to use their voice but when the feedback results in change, people feel more engaged in the organisation. They know that their voice matters, and they feel valued. This also lays the foundation for a culture that encourages feedback as a necessary and welcome tool for progress regardless of where someone falls on the org chart.
This self-awareness, informed both internally and externally, allows us to recognise our strengths and focus on improving our weaknesses to be a more complete leader. This prompts us to our third trait of authentic leadership – a willingness to learn and grow. Self-awareness no matter how profound is just data unless we are brave enough to do something about it. Authentic leaders are not perfect. They know they do not have all the answers. But they do have an enthusiasm for finding the answers and bettering themselves. They look for opportunities to expand their knowledge via trainings, readings, and exposure to new experiences. They dive into difficult conversations with the sole purpose of learning about others. Authentic leaders are on a constant quest to be better than they were the day before. But they also know that the journey is not linear. There will be missteps and regressions but as long as they are learning and growing, then they are on the right path.
Now all of that said, authenticity is not absolute. Speaking your thoughts and feelings in every moment is not a compelling way to lead. You have to know how to craft your true thoughts and feelings to the audience to be most impactful. We are humans dealing with other humans. There is a nuance to authentic leadership. It is a skill we hone by practicing it every day in all sorts of situations, not just the ones where it is easy. We learn that our delivery, in word choice and surroundings and timing, is often more pivotal than the point we are making.
Establishing yourself as an authentic leader is the first step in encouraging a culture of authenticity within your organisation. When others see their leaders transparently addressing their own weakness, encouraging, and listening to honest feedback to change behaviours and perspectives in a continual effort toward personal evolution, they are empowered to embark on the same adventure. Systemic change does not come from policies but rather from practice. It takes one leader to set the bar of authenticity as the standard for cultural shift to begin.
Someone has to be first.
Give me one reason it shouldn’t be you.
If you are willing to honestly answer that question, you have taken the first step on the path of authentic leadership.
Ash Beckham is an inclusion activist, inclusive leadership expert, professional trainer, workshop facilitator, motivational speaker, business leader and author of Step Up: How to Live with Courage and Become an Everyday Leader. Known for her unique voice, intrepid, relatable and intrinsically comic style, and powerful guidance, Beckham’s TEDx Talk ‘Coming Out of Your Closet’ Closet’ became a fast viral sensation. A popular speaker and leadership educator, she frequently addresses topics including embracing a different vision of leadership to create change in our workplaces, schools, places of worship, communities and more.