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What Is Authentic Leadership?
Whether you’ve recently been promoted to a management position, or, you’ve become the founder of your own startup; it can be difficult to understand what “Authentic leadership” is.
When you are thinking about what authentic leadership means to you, it is possible to fall into the trap of using common buzzwords such as “assertive”, “motivational” and “inspiring”.
One of the things that many would-be managers and startup owners forget to think about, is being authentic. Think about the people in your life who have shown authenticity to you, you likely have a great deal of respect for them and would go the extra mile for them.
This authenticity applies to leadership and the concept of leading in this manner has been explored since the time of the ancient Greeks.
The general belief of the Greeks in this regard was that being authentic allowed you to take greater influence over your own destiny.
You may be thinking, how does this have anything to do with me being an authentic manager and leader?
Luthans and Jensen from the University of Nebraska noted in 2006 that practicing authentic leadership in the workplace strongly raises employees’ work satisfaction, their loyalty to the company and can also improve their stress levels in the workplace.
To ensure that your startup or the team that you manage work to the best of their ability and to ensure you can retain your most talented workers, it will be worth it to practice authentic leadership.
Gardner et al, referred to authentic leadership in 2011 as the practice of leading that places a heavy emphasis on building the legitimacy and reputation of the leader as a direct consequence of that leader’s open relationships with their subordinates, taking their input into account and treating them ethically.
Authentic leaders tend to be positive individuals and are able to improve performance and motivation within their teams by earning trust and support from them.
This article will be exploring the ins and outs of authentic leadership and will seek to give you the tools to practice authentic leadership in your own role.
Authentic Leadership Statistics and Facts
There is a wealth of data available with regard to the effectiveness of various leadership styles and the impact of authentic and authentic leadership on an organization.
Additionally, there are also statistics available that show the pitfalls of leadership and the potential detrimental effects on businesses.
- Only 18% of individuals trust business leaders, to tell the truth.
- 32% of staff in the United Kingdom don’t feel confident proposing ideas to management.
- Uninspiring leaders only drive 23% engagement within their teams.
- Close to 50% of managers do not trust their own leaders to do the right thing.
- Where authenticity is encouraged, employee production increases by 20%
- Authentic leadership encourages employees to make ethical decisions (reference below chart).
The Theory Behind Authentic Leadership
Authentic leadership theory has four key components, we will be exploring each one of these components in their own right.
Strong Moral Code
One of the key principles of being an authentic leader revolves around having an effective moral compass.
The leader needs to be able to put the needs of the business and their customers above their own needs; prioritizing the long-term sustainability and wellbeing of the business over their own needs.
It can be easy to see a shortcut to the destination of success and be tempted to take it. The leader in this scenario needs to conduct themselves with integrity and ethics to avoid the temptation of doing the wrong thing for short-term gain.
For example, imagine a member of your team or even one of your superiors were to suggest an unwritten money-saving process within the business which involves making it notoriously difficult for customers to claim and process refunds within the company’s return window.
This would involve the refund or customer service department dragging their feet or refusing to answer calls or emails.
Implementing such a policy can be tempting for the short-term aspirations of the company as it can preserve cash flow.
Despite this, acting upon this type of policy does not lend itself to honesty or authentic leadership in any way and it is the authentic leader’s responsibility to deny these types of actions for the long-term success of the business.
It is critically important to embody the traits that you want to inspire in your team, change and authenticity come from the top.
To be an authentic and effective leader, you need to be fearless in your decision-making and stay true to what you believe is the best course of action. Despite this, just because you may think that something is the right decision, does not mean it is.
You need to be open to diversity of thought and you need to encourage the provision of alternative points of view from your team.
When you are in the decision-making process at key moments for your business, it is advisable to seek alternative opinions on the matter from your team. This assists you with identifying flaws in your own methodology, even if you intend to stick with your own values and beliefs.
You can also use this devil’s advocate approach to learn how to strengthen your own arguments, by understanding conflicting points of view.
To be an authentic leader, it is critical that you attempt to develop an environment where employees feel like they can openly and honestly state their points of view. You also need to be aware that your own opinions and beliefs on any given situation are prone to bias.
Getting alternative opinions can help to eliminate weaknesses in your decision-making processes.
Ruling with an iron fist or trying to communicate with your team through subliminal messaging is not the way to become an authentic leader. If you are going to become an authentic leader, it is more appropriate, to be honest, transparent and good towards your team members.
Even if your team members make mistakes, you need to be honest, rather than telling them what they want to hear.
It can seem difficult, wondering about how your team is going to like and respect you if you are not continuously positive towards them and you are actually critical and fair regarding their performance? Despite your concerns, it will work better for you to be honest.
If you act with transparency, your team members will know that you do not hide things from them and they will learn to respect your constructive criticism, rather than being defensive with it.
If you are not open and honest in your dealings with your employees; you cannot expect them to exhibit honest and transparent behavior in their work. You also cannot expect your employees to bring potential issues to your attention if they do not perceive you as a being a leader that they can trust.
To be an effective and authentic leader, it is important to display self-awareness; meaning that you understand your own positives, your negatives, and your own core beliefs. If you don’t know your own strengths and weaknesses and your own values as an individual, it would not be possible to be an authentic leader.
You can foster trust and loyalty among your team members by being honest about your strengths, weaknesses, and values; it shows your team members that you do not hide things from them and it displays your authenticity.
For example, if a team member is suffering a personal problem that is affecting their performance, the team member may feel more comfortable opening up to you if you are self-aware and display authenticity.
Being self-aware is also critical to ensuring that you can continue to grow as a leader, you can’t be expected to grow if you do not know where you need to improve.
For example, if you’ve found that you tend to put excessive pressure on your team; being self-aware allows you to take note of this and implement changes to improve as a leader.
There are a number of things that you can do to exercise authentic leadership:
- You should look for feedback from your subordinates and other individuals.
- You should reflect on your own behavior and negative attributes.
- You should keep tabs on your own feelings and be observant of them at all times, doing so is key to being authentic.
- Try not to micromanage your employees.
- Be genuine where practicable
- Involve your team wherever possible.
Being self-aware is key to being able to empathize with your employees. This can be critical when you are giving criticism and other forms of feedback to them; also to general success.
Additionally, if you have given feedback to the team following a period of poor performance, you may need to ask your team how you could help them to improve moving forward from said poor performance.
You can also practice self-awareness to react more positively to situations. For example, if you are very angry at a member of your team for making a crucial mistake and losing a client; you could think “I’m very angry and will react poorly right now, I should talk to them later”.
This would likely lead to you getting a better result out of the situation.
The Challenges of Authentic Leadership
As should be expected, authentic leadership can lose its effect or become more effective, depending on how often the manager practices it and how committed they are to maintaining it.
There are also some key difficulties that get in the way of authentic leadership being practiced and maintained effectively. There are also situations in which the effectiveness of authentic leadership can be limited by the circumstances of the business itself.
A challenge of authentic leadership is a byproduct of the current business and cultural environment of the world, whereby authentic leadership can be treated as a meaningless buzzword or a fad.
Some leaders and even celebrities now claim that they are and always try to be authentic, whilst paying little attention to the requirements for authentic leadership.
Another potential negative of authentic leadership is that it cannot always be effectively applied to management in every circumstance, as noted by Peter Barron Stark who posed the following scenario.
A company is performing badly and the employees are beginning to lose hope for the future; as a direct consequence of this, the manager is also beginning to lose hope.
The authentic thing to do in this situation would be for the manager to echo that he is feeling the same as the employees, however, the issue here is that acting in this manner will further demoralize the team and could effectively spell the doom of the company.
So, it would seem that it would be in the best interests of the staff and the company for the manager to act falsely; to bolster morale and attempt to steer the company and its employees through the difficult period.
Finally, there are situations whereby a startup may have to make decisions quickly, particularly in crisis situations. Authentic leadership presents a unique challenge in such circumstances, as authentic leadership suggests that a leader should acquire feedback from their team on how to tackle a situation.
Getting feedback from your team on how to solve a problem can take time, which is something that is not abundant in crisis situations and the danger of then taking action without consulting your team can be a loss of trust and respect from your subordinates. This can also have drastic implications in a crisis.
To summarize authentic leadership, it can be stated that all leaders should strive to become more authentic. This is due to the fact that authentic leaders can inspire and motivate their teams to get the best possible level of performance out of them.
Furthermore, practicing authentic leadership can greatly improve the atmosphere and culture in the company, removing stress and causing people to properly enjoy their work. This is also true for leaders, who become less stressed in their roles.
This is shown by the below chart, which assesses ego-depletion in leaders.
Becoming an authentic leader, however, is not a simple undertaking and it requires a large amount of introspection and potential changes in the management style of the leader in question.
These changes and introspections can take a significant amount of time to properly implement and there may be some teething problems along the way.
Additionally, it is critical for a leader to understand that whilst it is good to be authentic and practice authentic leadership in a majority of scenarios, there are occasions where a more authoritarian leadership style is required.
This is especially prevalent in crisis scenarios and situations where the leader needs to maintain morale, in spite of their own feelings.
In closing, authentic leadership is hard and it is a minefield and you may get it wrong but at the same time, if you practice it effectively and in the right situations, it could propel your business to the next level.