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Chris Underwood

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Nine qualities authentic leaders live by every day


There has been much discussion of the idea of authentic leadership, yet while I have read and heard much about its importance, less time and effort has been dedicated to understanding exactly what makes an authentic leader.

The Oxford Dictionary definition of authentic is “of undisputed origin, genuine”. So what does this mean when we talk about leaders? How do authentic leaders develop, and – perhaps more importantly – are they born or made?

Back in 2007, Professor Emeritus Peter Northouse PhD identified the five basic characteristics of an authentic leader:

  • understanding of their purpose
  • strong values about the right thing to do
  • the ability to build trust-based relationships with others
  • self-discipline and the ability to act on their values
  • passion

I would add two further characteristics to that list:

  • great communication
  • openness

When you find an authentic leader, authenticity is written through them as if they were a stick of seaside rock – they are authentic in all areas of life, rather than putting on a mask in a desire to create the right impression.

Real authentic leaders are open and honest, and they have direct relationships. Good listeners as well as good communicators, they can get people to think differently, get them on side and in alignment with the company’s mission – but without playing manipulative games which leave their colleagues and more junior staff feeling that they have been railroaded or dictated to.

Authentic leaders are also open to change, and prepared to listen – and maybe even change their minds – about things.

Being approachable, creating an open dialogue and encouraging innovation are hallmarks of an authentic leader, as is being open and honest in the face of adversity. Authentic leaders will lead by example in terms of their behaviour and business practices, and rather than tell someone what to do will instead show them the way towards the end goal.

To me, the characteristics of authentic leadership outlined above are what we would all look for in our leaders. What makes the difference? Passion is the answer. Having a passion for what you do, the organisation or team you are leading and the goals you are aiming for is what makes leaders more effective, otherwise you are just acting the part.

That’s not to say that authentic leaders don’t have part of the job they don’t enjoy (filling in the expenses, anyone?) but embarking on a project with the excitement and energy to give it your all is where the passion comes in, and your authentic passion rubs off on the rest of the team.

Does being an authentic leader really matter? I believe so, because authenticity and passion are the best ways to cascade your messages and business vision, and bring the organisation with you along the path you have chosen. With authentic leadership, companies can go much further because everyone is working towards the same end, they understand and support the strategy, and are united in support of the cause.

Are authentic leaders born or made?  Some are naturally more authentic than others, but there are ways to develop authenticity.

  • Be truthful – both to yourself and your organisation.  That doesn’t mean you can be hurtful, but truthfulness is about being clear and honest.  Whether the message is positive or less so, people respect the fact that they are given answers and clarity about why decisions have been made.
  • Lead from the heart – people are at the heart of every business, care about them and help them grow and develop. 
  • Be brave – choose to do the right thing, not the easy thing.  Particularly when you are facing challenges, having the authenticity to do the right thing is what earns respect. 
  • Foster good relationships in the workplace – staff want to create good connections and effective and lasting relationships from work.  Share successes, and give credit where it is due.
  • Think long-term – don’t worry about temporary setbacks or blips.  Focus on the horizon, keep aiming for the end goal.
  • Know yourself – understand your own strengths and weaknesses.  No one is perfect, but self-knowledge and awareness enables you to understand where the gaps lie for you and your team and what you need to do in order to compensate for them.
  • Take time to dream – authentic leaders are the ones who come up with new possibilities from what everyone else sees.  It was Robert Kennedy who said “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why.  I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
  • Strive for excellence, not perfection – perfection is impossible, but excellence is always possible, and excellence can always be improved on.
  • Be yourself – strength of character says more about you than any words, and the moment you are not yourself you start to lose authenticity.

To conclude, authentic leadership is really about character, and as US General ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf said, “leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character.  But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

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