When we think of leadership, we usually talk about competency, skill sets, or personality traits.
But did you know that in over 1,000 studies conducted by leadership researchers over the past 50 years, none of them could define the ideal leadership style, characteristics, or traits that makes a great leader ¹?
In other words, no one can become a great leader by simply trying to be like someone else.
Instead, researchers concluded that great leadership ⎯⎯ the capacity to inspire and empower others ⎯⎯ is about authenticity.
What is authentic leadership?
According to former CEO and Harvard Business School professor Bill Georges in True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, authentic leaders are “genuine people who are true to themselves and to what they believe in. They engender trust and develop genuine connections with others. Because people trust them, they are able to motivate others to high levels of performance. Rather than letting the expectations of other people guide them, they are prepared to be their own person and go their own way…they are more concerned about serving others than…their own success or recognition.”
In other words, authentic leaders are not just passionate for their purpose, but also practice their values consistently. They lead with their hearts, not just their heads. By bringing people together around a shared purpose and empowering them to be authentic as well, value is created for all stakeholders. They know who they are.
So often, we are so worried about showing our competency that we forget the key of leadership is to connect with others, and to show the warmth and human side of who we are. A Hong Kong client I coached, an executive at a Fortune 500 company, described it this way: “I cannot be too casual. I have to show others I’m confident, competent, and experienced. I’m not sure I can trust others, so I have to be careful.”
The need to show our competency often lead most leaders to focus on external strategies rather than building trust. However, the truth is, before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you. To be an effective leader, we must first develop self-awareness on our values, connect to others, then lead ².
How Authentic Leadership Transformed the Team I Led to Achieve Multi-million Profits
As a young woman working in America, I relentlessly drove myself to climb the corporate ladder; by 45, I was bank president. On the outside, it looked like I had everything going for me: the perfect house, the gorgeous family, the six-figure income, the country club membership.
But truth was, I felt exhausted, empty, and disconnected. I drove my team as hard as I drove myself, putting in 80-hour work weeks that drained my energy with sleepless nights. I chased after success the way I thought great leaders were supposed to do, but it was not sustainable – I finally ran out of gas and I knew something had to change. I did not see it then, but I was a micro-manager with a top-down approach that led my team to feel resentful and disengaged.
Apparently, this is a common problem in organizations: studies show that only 1/3 of employees are engaged in their work; most employees develop a deep distrust of leaders and are indifferent to the performance and values of the organization they work.
I decided to turn to coaching, trying a range of strategies that focused on external skills. It took a while before I found the right coach that got me to realize that in order to be an effective leader, I must learn to understand my own mind through awareness of my body.
By tuning in to how the body feels, I learned to be “calm-on-demand” to reflect on how my thoughts and feelings influence my actions, which impact others. I stopped worrying about living up to other people’s expectations and let myself be vulnerable-and authentic. I really began to connect with others, considering their interests and strengths instead of a results-driven attitude.
When I learned to let go and cultivate authentic dialogue, showing warmth and compassion, the results were miraculous. I created a coaching culture where I developed employees’ competencies and fostered an environment where they felt valued and confident, giving them the free rein to be innovative and strategic in their work. The result was a company that rose from obscurity to national prominence, and a coaching culture that still flourishes today. You know you are leaving a legacy when the people who worked for you were able to take what you did, and take it to another level!
If I had to sum up my journey to authentic leadership and my approach to coaching, it is this: If leaders cannot find time to slow down and develop themselves, no amount of external skills training or coaching can result in sustainably engaged employees who consistently perform highly.
Because it took me a long time to explore different coaching schools and get to an integrated approach of leadership development, I really wanted to find a framework for women that will make it easier to develop themselves for transformative women leadership.
This was how I came to develop the Integral Growth Model – a unique approach that begins with the intrinsic development of self-care, intellectual intelligence, emotional intelligence, and spiritual development before coaching the external skills of social influence and executive presence.
In my next newsletter, I will discuss how the Integral Growth Model works to help clients become calmer, more reflective, and more self-aware. Discovering our authentic leadership begins with self-awareness to understand our life stories and how it shapes our leadership. By reframing the meaningful events in our lives, each of us can discover our passion to lead and empower others.
Do you agree that authenticity is the key to great leadership? What does being authentic mean in your life?
And do you notice you are more effective as a leader when you are authentic?
We would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below or drop us a line.
¹ Discovering Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer, Harvard Business Review.
² Connect, Then Lead by Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger, Harvard Business Review.
This article is co-written by copywriter Jessica Lam Hill Young