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4 Fundamental Habits Of Authentic Leaders

One expert explains how authenticity is a composite trait, made up of four basic, interrelated elements.

[Photo: mimagephotography via Shutterstock]

You think of yourself as a pretty authentic person, so you reasonably assume you're likewise a pretty authentic leader. The "good leadership" thing to do would be to test that assumption, which you can start doing by answering these four questions:

  1. When was the last time you said, "I don’t know" out loud at work?
  2. Under what specific conditions are you the most difficult to work with?
  3. Which one of your personal values do you find most challenging to consistently embody?
  4. Who do you approach on purpose, knowing they're likely to disagree with you?

Typically, we think of authenticity as being real or genuine, which sounds simple enough. But in reality, authenticity is a composite trait, and psychologists have actually pinpointed four interrelated components that each play a role in being authentic. With that in mind, here are the four fundamental habits of authentic leaders.

1. They Admit What They Don't Know

When was the last time you said, "I don’t know" out loud at work?

Transparency is as easy to overdo as it is to under-do. Saying too much or too little about what you think or feel can be dangerous for leaders. But on a practical level, there's one thing that's rarely a mistake: saying, "I don’t know."

Sure, you only make it to the senior level by having the answers and charting a good course. But certainty is hard to come by, and sometimes even the best leaders are unsure. The truly authentic ones are honest about that. By saying "I don’t know," you're conveying transparency while also sending the message to other smart people that they should bring solutions.

2. They're Aware Of All Their "Selves"

Under what specific conditions are you the most difficult to work with?

You know whether you're an introvert or extrovert—great. But "trait psychology" can only tell us so much about how we work with others or perform in leadership roles.

We're generally less well-versed in understanding how those traits show up differently in response to environmental triggers. Authentic leaders grasp what causes them to behave in certain ways at different times. Though others around us will experience us differently in different situations, we ourselves don't always experience our behavior as quite so inconsistent.

So back to question #2: Even if you think you know the answer to this one, it would be wise to ask a colleague. It might help you become more aware, not just of your self, but of all your selves.

3. They Have Strong Values—And Live Them

Which one of your personal values do you find most challenging to consistently embody?

When we use words like "morals" or "values," our thinking gets really lofty really quickly. But leaders know how to ground those principles in their daily practices and experiences. Authenticity is about finding ways to demonstrate your values and good character.

Say you believe that people are your company’s greatest asset: How much time are you actually spending getting to know the people in your company—I mean, really getting to know them? Leaders who truly and authentically embody that value spend considerable amounts of time doing just that, and without an agenda of any kind.

Whatever you believe your values to be, you need your reactions to reflect them. What's more, that shouldn't take a huge effort of will—the values that you authentically hold can't help but shine forth.

4. They Listen Carefully To Those They Disagree With

Who do you approach on purpose, knowing they're likely to disagree with you?

Arguably the most powerful habit of authentic leaders is the most challenging one to implement. It's called "balanced processing." This means not just that you really listen to the views of others, but especially to those who disagree with you, and without a bias toward your own view.

In many ways, we're psychologically wired not to be able to do this very well. Yet it's essential if you're to facilitate genuine collaboration as opposed to nice, unmessy cooperation—those things where we simply keep people "in the loop" without really involving them.

So to return to question No. 4, if you can't think of someone with whom you regularly disagree but engage with anyway, you know what you need to work on. The most authentic leaders look for people who are willing to honestly disagree with them. If you're a CEO or the leader of a large team, you should probably be able to name at least five of those people quickly.

The good news is that if you aren't exactly as authentic a leader as you can be, you can work on it in pieces. Tackle just one of these four fundamental habits at a time. Chances are it will be worth the investment.

Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. She is the author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self.

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