Authentic Leadership

What makes a leader truly authentic? Authentic leadership is a key factor in driving results and getting employees or businesses engaged.

Just having returned from a relaxing summer leave, having traveled a few beautiful countries with my family, I was able to frequently experience service in hotels and restaurants during this time. It became clear to me that not every individual has the same definitions and interpretations on what good customer service looks like. Remembering those really nice experiences during my last vacation, I can say that the best service staff impressed me because they were authentic. They might have fullfilled a task or responsibility at that time, but I did not get the impression that they were playing a role. They were convincing, trustful and nice to be with. And the good ones kept us coming back by enjoying their service more than once.

Having spent almost my full career in managerial roles, and having had many different managers in different organisations and countries, I experienced that authentic leadership is one of the key success factors in running a successful business, team or project. In this article I would like to look at a few characteristics of authentic leadership, and how this impacts results and staff engagement.

Giving Balanced Feedback

Giving feedback is of value in many situations. When managing people it is even of key importance. Feedback is like a mirror which reflects your image which is seen and interpreted by another. Furthermore, feedback should be balanced. When regularly giving positive feedback to staff, at or shortly after the moment of occurrence of great behaviour or a wonderful performance, this helps motivating and encouraging people to show more of that. However, nobody’s perfect, right? That same performer might also be in situations where he or she needs feedback or corrective action on unwanted behaviour or an ineffective action shown. Having given that person positive feedback in other situations before, the individual will most likely be more receptive to your words in this unpleasant situation of receiving negative feedback from you. Giving balanced feedback gives trust to people, that you are honest and that see the bigger picture around the person involved.

Being There, When Needed

Your people might need direction, guidance or just the possibility to chat about something which bothers them. It might relate to their role, their current project or client pitch, or it might be something really big and hard in their private lifes. Authentic leaders have a sense (whether natural, or trained) to recognise such situations where the individual needs help or guidance. Also, the authentic leader leaves space for the individual to act independently and develop himself or herself. However, in case action is needed, and the individual needs to more directive management or closer guidance, the authentic leader can switch to another gear. Great books around situational leadership have been written. The authentic leader switches to different styles, which adapt to the person, the situation and the task at hand. This leader reflects his own actions and decides when and how to be there for that person. In the appropriate manner, at the right time, with the fitting words and with empathy. This brings us to the next characteristic.

Showing (Real) Empathy

Empathy to me means the ability and willingness of the leader to place himself or herself in the position of the person concerned. Real empathy puts away the leaders own experiences, values, principles and beliefs. It puts the person involved in the centre. Empathic leaders are able to explore the ideas, beliefs and perspectives of their people. He or she possesses a real and true motivation to understand this in detail. Showing empathy can be hard work, being untrained or not having that quality as a natural habit as a leader. It involves active listening, not only in words but also body language. The empathic leader is able to pick up unspoken signs, noticing and reflecting upon changes of behaviour or performance. Systemic coaching is a powerful method in unlocking empathy. The empathic leader or coach asks lots of open and circular questions, which help understand the perspectives, feelings, views and beliefs of the individual, as well as the other actors in the specific situation which reflects a problem to the individual.

Being True To Your Values

An authentic leader is consistent. Consistent in actions, beliefs and behaviour. An authentic leader not only pushes pressure ‘down’ to the teams, an authentic leader also pushes back ‘up’ the organisational chain if needed. By doing this, the leader consistency shows stability. This is a sound pilar which the people and the business, as well as the senior leadership, can depend on. Every person is different, diversity is a big asset in many of today’s most successful corporations. Leadership should also be diverse. Everyone has different backgrounds, beliefs and principles and an authentic leader is faithful to himself or herself. Moreover, the authentic leader is not afraid to show these beliefs, in words or actions.

Creating Purpose

Authentic leaders focus on the why, and less on the what or how. Creating purpose and vision is a key characteristic which many great leaders have shown. Many might know this video, but in this context I thought of Simon Sinek’s great TED talk on inspirational leaders, which is all about starting with the why: Getting people to change behaviour, drive results or lead a project to a successful end will be easier when they understand the purpose and bigger picture. Authentic leaders are able to create and translate the purpose into results for the organisation through their people.

I would like to thank that great service personnel during my vacation for inspiring me to share these thoughts with you. You guys were truly and authentically making my day great!

Passionate about leadership, sales, coaching, creation and innovation