The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

The Challenge of Authentic Leadership

by Gael O'Brien

Of all the styles and types of leadership, something called authentic leadership seems the easiest to achieve – after all, who wouldn’t want to be, and come across as, the genuine article?

Leadership_Businessman in AuditoriumMore than twenty years ago leadership guru Warren Bennis wrote that the essence of leadership is “becoming yourself.” As he also wrote that leaders are made, not born, the work-in-progress theory applies here.

Bennis, Kevin Cashman and Bill George are among the leadership experts who’ve been talking and writing about the characteristics and significance of leading authentically; at its core, it involves possessing high emotional intelligence.

Behaviors include self awareness (the power Cashman calls of being real rather than having to be right), listening to hear and connect, living out of one’s values and integrity, and valuing others, bringing people together and inspiring them to create value around shared purpose. George talks about authentic leadership as being essential for the 21st century leader.

Blake Mycoskie, founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” of TOMS,  is one of many leaders who seem to fit that description. He is focused on building a culture where employees are valued, helped to perform to their fullest ability, and are engaged in shared purpose to create value for others.

The inevitable question: is authentic leadership sustainable and does it make a difference? After all, the memory of the leadership of self involvement, from Wall Street and other sectors fueling the economic meltdown, is still so vivid. Is it possible that a 21st century leadership can emerge that involves self awareness, emotional intelligence, and authenticity?

Betsy Myers believes it is. In her new book "Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You" she tells the story of a 2006 conference held at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government where the common sentiment among the dozens of pre-eminent CEOs, thought leaders and academics participating (including Bennis, George, John Kotter, Howard ShultzJack WelchLes WexnerNoel Tichy,  and Admiral Thad Allen) was that a new leadership of heart and mind was emerging. The paradigm emphasized authenticity, collaboration and caring, she said.

Myers indicated that the conference confirmed three core beliefs that her experience shared: 1) leadership is a function of self knowledge and honest self reflection; 2) the strength of leaders comes from their willingness to ask questions; and 3) leaders draw their power less from what they know and more from how they make people around them feel.

"Leadership is about how you make people feel – about you, about the project or work you’re doing together, and especially about themselves,” she writes. Currently founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, Myers was executive director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership and also served as senior adviser to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and to President Bill Clinton.

The gems in her book are her stories (personal, political and drawn from business) that illustrate her seven core ideas: authenticity, connection, respect, clarity, collaboration, learning, and courage. They form the roadmap in the leadership journey she describes, which essentially becomes a journey in developing one’s emotional intelligence.

The word “authentic” can be problematic if we let it. It invites the best that is possible as well as becoming trite if overused and undernourished. When it falls prey to posturing it becomes a fad: consider the self proclamations by celebrities, politicians, and online dater wannabes professing “I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real,” (Anderson Cooper) or “I’m authentic” (Michele Bachman) with all kinds of variations in between.

What saves “authenticity” from death by posers is that it isn’t about what leaders say about themselves; it is what the stories told about them demonstrate, about their actions, conversations, connecting, how they handle mistakes, their openness to feedback and disagreement in creating solutions, and their capacity to inspire followers.

Authenticity is essentially tied to a leader’s capacity for self awareness in that moment. It is an organic process. It has to be fed continually by a leader’s willingness to learn about himself/herself and the world.

It is a leadership driven by one’s belief that sustainable business success is built by wanting to deserve and bring about trust, knowing the impact that trust has on the relationships and value created.

Given the challenges that have launched the 21st century, leaders face pressures and demands that will be met so much more effectively if people feel heard, if connections are made at both the level of head and heart, if shared purpose can be created, if trust can be established: all sustainable elements of authentic leadership.

Gael OBrien_ID_CropGael O’Brien is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a thought leader on building leadership, trust, and reputation and writes The Week in Ethics.

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