Authenticity in leadership

Loretta Cooper

September 20, 2021

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Top 5 Superpowers Every Change Leader Needs.  Superpower #3: Be Authentic.  Authenticity in leadership with Loretta Cooper

[Loretta Cooper] Authentic leadership is having a moment. In fact, authentic leadership has become so trendy you might wonder if there’s anything unique or authentic left in the concept at all. We hear phrases like “bring your whole self to work” and it’s easy to imagine scenarios where that could go terribly wrong. In fact, you probably have in mind at this very moment at least one leader or teammate who you wish was a little less themselves and perhaps a little more aligned to team norms or standards.

But is that really what we mean when we talk about authenticity? I think authenticity gets a bad rap because, too often, we see leaders using it as an excuse to misbehave, be unprepared, or generally act like a jerk. And then they use the excuse “hey, I’m just being my authentic self!” One of my favorite organizational psychologists and thinkers, Adam Grant puts it this way: “being unfiltered is not a sign of authenticity it’s a sign of low self-control.”

Impulsive leadership is trusting your gut and shooting from the hip. Disciplined leadership is taking the time to consider the impact of your actions on others. You see, authentic leadership has a number of prerequisites. First and foremost, it presumes that you know yourself. Self-awareness and developing emotional intelligence is a lifelong journey – holding hands with humility, curiosity, courage, and a willingness to be open to maturing and deepening the inside game.

Prerequisite number two: authenticity requires empathy. It’s not an excuse for narcissism. Authentic leaders are focused on the greater good for the organizational mission and seek the best possible outcomes even, and maybe especially, when competing values are at play.

Number three: authenticity works best if you’ve already demonstrated your competence. If you don’t know your business and can’t demonstrate mastery over the content, nobody really cares how you’re emotionally processing in that moment.

Number four: authenticity requires high psychological safety. If you want your people to be able to show up with authenticity you have to create a culture where vulnerability and honesty is rewarded. That means a tolerance for learning and growth. Coincidentally, the same characteristic corresponds to organizations that are highly innovative.

So, let’s try out a working definition of what it means to be a thoughtful and effective authentic leader. Here’s a definition I’ve been playing around with: authentic leaders demonstrate the flexibility to leverage grounded emotional intelligence and informed decision making in the midst of daily chaos. Here’s why I like this definition: first, it suggests that authentic leadership is a choice we make even when the conditions are less than optimal. In that moment when the phone is ringing, you have three urgent meetings competing for your time, your inbox keeps pinging at you… authenticity is an invitation to reach for that deeper quieter self to bring that centered wise view to the table to make the most intelligent and informed decision. And hopefully that’s a decision that also serves the greater good.

But, of course, the biggest challenge here isn’t just defining authenticity. The larger challenge is living into this thing we call authentic leadership. Authentic leadership is the calling. It’s a standard we aim for and some days we clear the hurdle, some days… not so much. I have another favorite quote for this. Victor Frankel was a holocaust survivor, psychologist, and researcher who famously observed “between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space lies all our power and freedom.” That space is where we find authenticity.

So how do we find that space? As with so many leadership lessons, I am finding the answer in mindfulness practices. That very first prerequisite we talked about – self-knowledge and self-awareness. Mindfulness practices enable us to expand the space between stimulus and response. Literally slow time down to watch ourselves in action and choose a more grounded, thoughtful response in a stressful moment. Because, let’s face it, when was the last time you were asked to make an important decision that didn’t involve stress?

Mindfulness practices can be traditional meditation – sitting quietly, following the breath, getting distracted, and then returning to the breath again. But mindfulness practices can also take the form of a solitary walk, or just a few deep breaths between calls. In our next video we’ll explore a simple, accessible meditation practice that can help you find that space between stimulus and response and encourage us all to be more authentic in our leadership and relationships.

In the meantime, I’d like to know how you would define authentic leadership. What’s your working definition? You can add your comments in the chat below. We’d love to hear more ideas. For The Wheelhouse Group, I’m Loretta Cooper.

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