How to be an authentic leader

Be yourself? It's not quite so simple, says Professor Margarita Mayo.

by Margarita Mayo
Last Updated: 19 Mar 2018
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Down to business

Today, the need for authenticity is easy to understand. One of the most pressing issues we face is a lack of trust in our leaders. In fact, Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer survey across 28 countries reports trust levels in business leaders at just 37%, a decline of six points from 2015 and a decline of fifteen points from 2011.

We must endeavor to resolve this crisis of confidence in leadership, because leaders are the glue that holds companies together and are of the fabric of our society. Once, leaders acquired trust based on formal positions, but today they must rely on their own authentic power gain the trust of their employees, peers, and community.

Building on nearly two decades of research and interviews with leaders – from CEOs of multinationals to start-up founders -- I have developed a framework to better understand how to be an authentic leader. 

What makes someone truly authentic?

Authentic leadership is not just about being yourself, but also about growing into your best self and being true to others. It is forever a work in progress that involves trusting relationships. Authentic leaders embrace a process of emotional, behavioural, and social enrichment to win the hearts of others, set the habit of learning, and live in harmony with others. I call this framework ‘The 3 Hs of Authentic Leadership: Heart, Habit, and Harmony’.

To become and, more importantly, to stay authentic in leadership and life involves three general competencies: emotional, behavioral, and social authenticity. Each type of authenticity includes three key attributes that I illustrate in my book Yours Truly with inspirational stories of leaders from around the world, combined with research-based studies.

Heart – Emotional Authenticity

The first – and most obvious – criterion is that authentic leaders feel good about themselves. They are the kinds of people who are self-determined, they live by their own standards, they seem to choose and create contexts that fit their personal strengths and project a sense of self-realization.

Emotional authenticity includes ways to increase self-awareness through unbiased processing of your strengths and weaknesses, cultivating your passion and transmitting it to others with humility.

Richard Branson is widely considered one of the most important entrepreneurs of the last half century -- not just because of his successes, but because he is known as someone who puts his heart into his business.

Passion, Humility, and Storytelling are the key characteristics behind emotional authenticity. Authentic leaders embrace their personal story and are able to tell others what they have done in life and learned as a result.

Habit – Behavioral Authenticity

We usually think of authentic leaders as a product of innate qualities, but the making of an authentic leader is a work in progress. Authentic leaders foster an optimistic outlook, build mental strength, and stay in control of their own destiny. This behaviour is a practiced habit, one that involves constant listening to one’s self and finding opportunities to learn.

Authentic leaders often come into their own during times of crisis and change – whether that times is based on personal or professional (or both) change.  For example, Kevin Johnson, the new CEO of Starbucks, believes that one of his clarifying moments in understanding his own authenticity came when he was diagnosed with melanoma.

A Growth Mindset, Empathy, and Resilience are the key characteristics to staying authentic over time. Many of the authentic leaders I have met developed their confidence and resilience, and this learned behavior is what helped them overcome difficult times.

Harmony – Social Authenticity

Authentic leaders look after others. They look for ways to create rapport and unity between themselves and others in order to build contexts that will allow others to shine and develop.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s meteoric rise surprised many because he does not fit with the big-ego club of top leaders. In an interview, he explains that, ‘As a leader, a lot of your job is to make those people successful. It’s less about trying to be successful (yourself), and more about making sure you have good people.’

Exemplarity, Community, and Legacy are the key characteristics to create harmony and a climate of authenticity for long-lasting impact. Managers can turn authentic leadership into a successful strategy by walking the talk, building social scaffoldings by and for people, and leading with a social purpose.

How to Manage the Authenticity Paradoxes

Authentic leadership can never be static or self-interested. If it is to be truly successful, it is grounded, but continually evolving and cooperative. The leaders I talked to for Yours Truly paved the way for powerful transformation by resolving three authenticity paradoxes:

First, authentic leaders resolve the tension between their protean self (i.e. their different sides) and ‘being true’ to themselves. They often consider their multiple drives, embracing all sides of their story to develop self-awareness and purpose.

Second, authentic leaders change over time, seeking the balance between growth and authenticity. They endeavour to ‘connect the dots’, to learn and experiment with their possible selves. They make sense of the past to create a new future.

Finally, their impact is lasting because they find harmony in the tension between their personal and social self. They build platforms, craft norms, and advance social goals that thrive after they are gone.

If you want to be an authentic leader, dealing effectively with the three paradoxes of authenticity is key. To develop and harness your authentic power, stay true to your protean, possible, and social selves.  

Margarita Mayo is professor of leadership at IE Business School. This is an edited excerpt from her book Yours Truly: Staying Authentic in Leadership and Life (Bloomsbury, £25).

Image credit: Sunny studio/Shutterstock

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