How can you be an authentic leader?

Karlien Vanderheyden

By Karlien Vanderheyden

Professor of Organisational Behaviour

12 January 2022

Source: Management Team (07/12/2021); Author: Karlien Vanderheyden

What is authentic leadership?

Personal authenticity means having a healthy alignment between your internal values and convictions and your external behaviour. What it boils down to is that, as a leader, you try to find a style that corresponds to your values and personality. And this style can absolutely change as you learn more about yourself, about other leaders, about the culture of the organisation, and so on. For example, tight control over what employees do might work in a certain context, but no longer be useful with new challenges.

Why is authenticity important?

Organisations in which people are authentic generally have more committed and motivated employees and have a culture in which people feel safe to communicate things or try things out. Leaders who are unable to behave authentically often feel exhausted and demotivated. It takes a great deal of energy to behave in a way that doesn’t chime with your values, priorities and style. 

What are the potential pitfalls?

Authenticity  knows  no  bounds. People  often  believe  that  being  authentic equates  to bluntly expressing their opinion.  These  pronouncements  often  come over as direct, full-frontal attacks that can have unintended consequences. It may not have been your intention to hurt someone, but that is what happened. If this occurs  frequently,  employees  do not  feel  that  they  can put themselves  in  a vulnerable position with you, or that they are in a safe environment.

Authenticity  is  all  about  me. That  too  is  a  pitfall. Authenticity  is  seldom exclusively about us and is often about those around us. Some people use ‘this is who I am’ as an excuse for certain behaviour. Authenticity without empathy creates egotism. In fact, true authenticity should lead to a culture of mutual respect. You mustbe able to establish and maintain relationships. Your authenticity is expressed in society, relation to others.

Authenticity is where it all begins. We often believe that people automatically trust us when we show authenticity. That is not the case. It is important that you have already demonstrated competence, and have presented yourself as credible, before you are fully authentic. Being authentic without already enjoying a certain degree of trust is a risky undertaking and will often backfire. That is what we call ‘idiosyncrasy credit’: you first have to demonstrate your value to the group, and once you have built up this credit, you are well positioned to deviate from group expectations and be more authentic. 

What can we do to grow in our authenticity?

Learn from a wide range of role models. If you want to grow as an authentic leader, you must dare to look at other leaders and learn from them. Don’t stop at just one role model, but learn from different people and choose what fits best with you.  You  won’t find  the  perfect  model  in  a  single  colleague  or  leader,  but  by combining many different role models. Stepping outside your comfort zone from time to time will make you a better leader.

Try to  become  better. Each of us is a  work in progress and improves through trial and error. Don’t constantly doubt your skills, talents and achievements. Let others  see  what  you  already  have  (for  example  intelligence  or  social  skills) and dare to set learning objectives that motivate you to continuously develop towards greater authenticity.

Keep evaluating. Once  you’ve  identified your values and the things you find important  and  less  important,  it’s  a  good  idea to assess how your behaviour is aligned to these. Determine for yourself what you do and do not want to do to be an authentic leader. Remember that your choices may well change at various points in your life. 

Ensure you communicate effectively. Communication is important for building trust and showing authenticity. Every question in every conversation is an opportunity to share ideas, visions and values. Ensure that your message is clear.

It’s more challenging to be authentic in a multicultural environment. For example, the way you convince others and the kinds of arguments that are most effective are deeply culturally embedded.  Sometimes  as  a  leader  in  a  diverse environment you might need to move away from your own authentic self and create a relationship of trust by showing respect for the different cultures.

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Karlien Vanderheyden

Karlien Vanderheyden

Associate Professor