It was William Shakespeare who said, “To thine own self be true…” Clearly the Bard knew a thing or two about authentic leadership.
But if it was that easy, then surely everyone would be doing it? Being themselves that is.
Yet, I know from coaching organisational leaders that this is often not the case. It’s almost as though some of them have lost their way. Typical comments I hear in coaching sessions include, “I’m not good enough”, “I’ve got this job by accident or luck” or “What got me here, won’t get me there”. For some of my female clients, there is the added, “I need to behave in a certain way to get ahead”.
By working through these thoughts with a coach, the leader is able to come out the other side of coaching more comfortable in their own skin – with the recognition that they are really good at what they do and that the person they are is the reason they got the job. Yes, they need to step up and become version 2.0 of themselves but the essential essence of who they are should be the same.
For those leaders without a coach, there might be a bit of a blind spot going on. So, here are seven clues to confirm whether you are really are being an authentic leader:
- You aren’t afraid to be vulnerable (but not too much): You know it’s okay to show that you’re human. You understand that it makes you much more approachable to your employees. Show too much vulnerability, however, and it may lead people to conclude you’re a bit of a soft-touch or not strong enough to lead the organisation. Fake your vulnerability, however, and people will see it for what it is – manipulation.
- Your actions mirror your words: You are really clear on your personal values and beliefs. They are your moral compass and help you make decisions with integrity. You understand that as an organisational leader that your personal values and behaviour will have an impact on the culture of your organisation. This is why you make sure that what you say and what you do work in harmony.
- You don’t forget where you came from: You are proud of your journey to where you are – the good, the bad and the ugly aspects. You don’t shy away from your background. In fact, you hold it close. It made you who you are. In fact, you share little snippets of your childhood, your first job etc with your staff. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones talk about this in their book, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’
- You have a clear ‘line in the sand’: This is fed by number two. Just as you know what you stand for, you also know what you don’t stand for. In that instance where you are asked to do something you believe to be unethical, illegal or underhand, you are confident enough to push back. In extreme cases, you are confident enough to leave your organisation.
- You put others before yourself: You know that as the person at the top of the organisation or department that you hold incredible power – based on your position. You work hard to use that power wisely, part of which is about you putting others before yourself. This means stepping back graciously, for example, when a more junior member of staff comes up with a better idea than you to solving a problem. It means not taking a huge pay increase when you’ve frozen your employee’s pay due to the financial crisis. If you’re interested, Simon Sinek has written and talked about the importance of ‘Why leaders eat last’.
- You know it’s not all about you: You recognise that people might be deferential to you because of your position. That they might be doing things because they think you will like it. You don’t fall prey to the trap of believing your own hype now that you are at the top of the tree. You make clear to your immediate team, including your PA, that they aren’t to wield your name to get things done. You remember what that felt like when you were starting out in an organisation – to be told to drop something that you’d spent months on, or do something by tomorrow because “the chief executive wants it”.
- You know you can’t do it on your own: You know that you need a support team around you. Just as the athletes in Team GB had access to physios, psychologists, nutritionists etc., you need the leadership equivalent. You already have in place an executive coach. You’re part of a leadership peer group, that meets regularly to help each other through current issues. You have a mentor. In fact you have several, each offering different things but all giving you exactly what you need. You have friends who are former colleagues from across your career who know you well and will give it to you straight. In fact, you’ve made sure you surrounded yourself with people who won’t let you believe your own hype and will keep you grounded. Bill George talks about the importance of a support team in his book, ‘True North’.
So, whether you’ve lost your way or you know exactly where you’re heading, these seven clues will help you ensure your compass is pointing in the right direction for you.
Interested in getting a coach? Receive a complimentary 30 minute telephone consultation when you email us You’ll have the opportunity to discuss your needs and ask questions to make sure you get the coach that’s right for you.
Hayley Lewis is a chartered psychologist and a lecturer on the Masters in Organisational Psychology at City, University of London. She has held various senior leadership roles covering services including organisational development, ICT, customer services and communications. Hayley works with leaders looking to achieve exceptional performance at an individual, team and organisational level.