COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd created an unprecedented pivotal cultural moment. These two events are affecting, and causing us to reflect on, nearly every part of our lives and will shape our future going forward. When it comes to our work lives, the changes are multi-faceted, from rethinking office logistics and protocols to overhauling policy and products. They are tangible, and they are cultural. This moment calls for great, authentic leadership.
The concept of bringing your whole self to work is nothing new, but that does not get to the depth of what it means to be an authentic leader. Bill George, in his book, Authentic Leadership, cites five qualities of an authentic leader that include understanding your purpose, adhering to your values, leading from the heart, establishing strong connections, and practicing self-discipline. In a subsequent book, Finding Your True North, he adds learning from your experiences.
When I talk about authentic leadership with my coaching clients, who are mostly high-potential women in the middle stages of their careers, we talk about embracing their true, best selves. Discovering their strengths and stepping into them. Learning about their blind spots and addressing them. We explore who they want to be as a leader and what feels right. Because it is hard, and really stressful, to try to be someone you are not. It’s like swimming upstream—all the time. When you lead authentically, however, you are effortlessly powerful.
Of course, authentic leadership is rarely taught. Many of us learn to lead by example. It isn’t enough, though, to adopt the style of the leaders above you just because they’re in the positions you aspire to. If the shoe doesn’t fit, wearing it is going to hurt. Instead, seek out leaders who inspire you, whether you work with them (or even know them) or not. Do some research. What do they do that feels right to you? What leadership strategies do they follow? Once you have some ideas, try them out. See how it feels to adopt one or two. Give it some time and see if it feels natural to you, or whether it feels forced. What do you notice about the people around you as you experiment? How do they respond? Don’t just look to any leader—look to the right leader for you.
Aligned with core values
Living in line with your values is key to being authentic. Values should guide your choices and decisions, so knowing what they are is critical. Make a list of all the values you care about and rank them in order of importance to you. Think about these values in the context of leadership. For example, if you rated family as a core value, how does that show up for you in the workplace? As a leader, are you aware of and understanding of the family responsibilities of the people you manage? As a CEO, are the company policies family-friendly? Do you know the names of your employees’ spouses and children? Do you ask about them? If you realize that your behavior as a leader is not aligned with your core values, reevaluate how to incorporate them. Misalignment is a key indicator that you are not being authentic.
Driven by purpose
If your values guide you, then it is your purpose that drives you. What do you want to accomplish in your life? How do you want to be remembered? Having a sense of purpose, of why you do what you do, can keep you on the right track. As an authentic leader, your purpose can provide clarity to you and to those who follow you. In our current reality, when we may be swamped or overwhelmed by uncertainty, employees need leaders with purpose who help provide meaning to the work they do. Purpose provides inspiration and motivation.
Centered on people
To be authentic, you need to do more than acknowledge your feelings; you need to act upon them. Leading from the heart couldn’t be more important right now. As a leader, you are responsible not just for revenue, budgets, or products, but most importantly for people. People who are your customers, your suppliers, and your employees. In his book, Everybody Matters (coauthored by Raj Sisodia,), Bob Chapman, the CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, writes of his company’s, guiding principle, “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.” What if that guided you? How are you touching the lives of the people you lead? Are you showing compassion in these most challenging times? Are you open to learning from your employees and hearing their perspectives, of considering their input? Are you ensuring their health and wellness? Now, more than ever is the time to put people first.
Based on continual growth
A growth mindset is one in which you are always learning from experiences, and it is something all authentic leaders have in common. They can draw on their past experiences, recognize, acknowledge and learn from their mistakes, and learn from others. They are willing to make changes based on what they learn and shift strategies and policies. Take a look at what is happening in this country. Big changes are afoot regarding police reform, justice reform, health and safety policies, and the country slowly reckoning with its past. Authentic leaders are listening, learning, and taking action: righting wrongs, learning from experts, changing policies and products, creating, and participating in conversations.
With the massive changes taking place in this country, I envision a surge in authentic leadership as there will be little tolerance for anything but. Heed the call to lead with purpose, be guided by your values, learn from your mistakes, and keep growing. Lead from the heart, be compassionate, and put people first. Be an authentic leader, whatever that looks like for you.
Amy Kan is a leadership coach, with a focus on women’s advancement and authentic leadership.