In TomorrowToday we believe that one of leadership’s most important markers is that of authenticity. Of course most would immediately nod their heads in agreement but on deeper reflection it might be challenged, as surely there are times when leaders cannot afford to be authentic? It might be argued that there are times when a leader has to appear confident when he / she is anything but confident; there might be times when a leader has to mask their true emotions and act in a manner that ‘isn’t true to what they are feeling in that moment. In reality, authenticity might be a luxury that few leaders can afford in the trenches of leading in a changing world.

Mask on roadWarren Bennis writes that being authentic is to literally be, “your own author…to discover your own native energies and desires, and then to find a way of acting on them”. Peter Drucker said that in all his years of consulting and working with leaders he never once came across a “natural executive” – in other words, an executive who was born successful. Smart leaders understand that whilst they might have some natural attributes that assist in a leadership role, they need to work at being a leader.

This work is both ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ work. The latter is the acquisition of skillsets that are necessary for contemporary leadership. These are skills that go beyond the traditional toolkit such as good negotiating skills, sound conflict resolution abilities, access to strategic frameworks etc…to skills such as the ability to listen,  the art of hosting good questions, curiosity and several others that wouldn’t traditionally be seen as part of the leader’s toolkit.  The former (the ‘inner’ work) has to do with what Bennis alludes to – identifying one’s energies and desires, as well as the cultivation of emotional intelligence. The inner work of the leader poses a very different landscape to that of the outer work required of the leader.

However, here is the interesting thing: authenticity demands that the two bits of work (inner and outer), the two landscapes involved, meet. It is in the meeting of what is happening ‘inside’ with what is happening ‘outside’ that authenticity is forged. It is the leader’s willingness to join these two pieces that brings about authenticity. That meeting point is seldom coherent, organised and neat; it can be messy, confusing and create a sense of vulnerability but such is the terrain of authenticity. There also is no ‘blueprint’ for what this looks like, one cannot ‘copy authenticity’ – it has to be worked out for oneself. The leader who constantly looks to bridge these two areas and who is willing to continually explore the cross-currents the two create as they meet, is the leader who is learning what it means to be authentic.

As a leader all you have to work with is yourself. Too many leaders fail to realise this and all their attention and focus is on what is ‘out there’. Neglecting the inner work together with a failure to understand that at some point the inner work connects with the outer work of leadership, means that leadership authenticity proves elusive.

Here might be some helpful questions for your consideration when considering leadership authenticity:

1.    What would authenticity look like for you?
2.    How might you have changed since being in a leadership role? Why is that?
3.    How big a gap is there between who you are at work and who you are away from work? (Assuming there is a gap) – What are the conditions that have led to this gap emerging and what do you hear yourself saying to explain or justify this?
4.    What might be your ‘neglected inner work’?
5.    What would those who know you best say to you (about yourself) were you to invite them to really say what it is they see?
6.    What mirrors are you using to help ensure authenticity in your leadership practice?
7.    In what situations do you find it difficult to be authentic? Why is that? What would happen if you tried to show a bit more of how you really feel in those situations?

Exploring these questions might well give rise to other personal questions, ones that are more relevant for you in your own leadership journey. You need to follow those questions to deeper places. There is no easy solution or quick fix here but authenticity in your leadership practice is important. It is important because when you no longer find yourself in the leadership role, what will you be left with? Authenticity is the bridge to life’s significant transitions and is something that is never ‘done’ but is work that one is constantly called to do throughout life’s journey. It is possible to neglect this work but at what cost?

You lead out of who you are; who then is the self that leads?

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