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On Becoming an Authentic Leader

People don't expect perfection, but do want leaders who are real

Li #217 On Becoming an Authentic Leader
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THE LEADERSHIP CREDIBILITY you earn through your professional competence and your personal conduct (behaviors) is the single most important factor that influences people to follow you. To maintain that credibility, however, you must be authentic.

Don’t expect to fool anyone

The world has always been full of leaders who start out with flying colors only to flame out in failure. They projected strength, confidence, and competence. They appeared to be effective leaders and people bought into them. Eventually, though, their lack of substance was exposed, and they failed.

Why were people taken in? It’s simple. The qualities that initially encourage credibility are easy to counterfeit. With people’s natural tendency to be attracted to the Conventional Model of a leader (strong, magnetic, attractive, energetic, verbally adept), it’s simple for a would-be leader with sufficient emotional intelligence to figure out what the ingredients are and project those qualities.

That is, it’s easy to counterfeit for a while. Eventually, reality is exposed. Henry B. Thayer, who led AT&T back in the 1920s, said this:

“It is easy to fool yourself. It is possible to fool the people you work for. It is more difficult to fool the people you work with. But it is impossible to fool the people who work under you.”

The ancient Romans had a proverb: “Truth is the daughter of time.” Over time, the truth comes out. If you want to succeed as a leader long-term, you should take that proverb to heart and choose to pursue my Leadership Proposition 6: The character of leadership is authenticity. But what does “authentic” mean?

Authenticity Defined

I commonly find confusion over the meaning of authenticity, especially as it relates to transparency. These concepts are often mingled or considered interchangeable, but that is a great mistake. Let me share my working definition of each.

Transparency means “you can see everything.” Like the view through a clean windowpane, nothing is hidden. You can see everything, and what you see is what you get.

Authenticity means “what you see is real.” There is no promise that you can see everything, but you can be confident that what you see is true. It’s not fake, misleading, or deceptive. It’s solid and dependable.

Both are appropriate in their place. There are categories where transparency is exactly right and necessary. But there are many times in leadership when you are not at liberty to tell all you know. And there are leadership applications where practicing complete transparency is a huge mistake — especially in revealing everything you think and feel.

As a leader your attitudes are more contagious than a virus; thus, what you reveal in public must be by intelligent calculation. If you are feeling negative and discouraged and show it transparently, you can create a storm of negativity, discouragement, and doubt throughout your whole team, sometimes an entire organization. Therefore, be aware and wise in what you say and do.

Authenticity must be modeled

As a leader, you getthe kind of behavior you demonstrate. Corporate cultures are ultimately developed by the behaviors of their leaders. On the positive side, this is how a company’s culture (or its subcultures, such as departments or offices) can be built in a desirable direction. But always keep in mind that undesirable attitudes, words, and behaviors will also be reproduced down the ranks. Your job is to impart optimism about your eventual success. My definition of optimism: “Realism with confidence.” It does not mean denying negative realities; rather, it looks them in the eye, but with the confidence that “we can meet this challenge and prevail.”

Be authentic — real, dependable, and optimistic — and you’ll build your followers’ confidence. To that end, here are three areas of behavior you can work on that will increase followers’ trust in your authenticity as a leader.

1. Integrity in word and deed

Most people think of honesty or ethical behavior when they hear the word “integrity.” That is certainly true, but there are other applications of the concept in leadership.

  • Intellectual honesty

Being honest with yourself. The person willing to fool him- or herself has gone wrong from the start and cannot lead others with integrity. That failure of integrity will color and shape everything else.

  • Showing loyalty to people who are absent

Unless there is a valid reason to talk negatively about others who are not present (such as in a managing or coaching situation), this undermines people’s trust.

  • Keeping your word: Doing what you say you will do

  • Being predictably “you”

There is no personality type or temperament you must have to be an effective leader. Followers can adjust to a wide variety of styles in leaders, from the loud and boisterous to the quiet and introspective. What followers cannot deal well with are leaders who ride a roller-coaster of moods. Your followers will adjust to your personality and style as long as you are consistent in them. Leaders who are volatile and moody undermine their credibility, leading to team confusion and ineffectiveness.

2. Abundant clear communication

One of the chief complaints you’ll hear in the business world is lack of communication from leadership. And yet, in those same places, leaders think they communicate enough. It’s a universal organizational virus. Accept it as a truism of leadership: Communicate, communicate, and communicate. And when you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate some more. About what?

  • Your core values, philosophies, and principles: A never-ending process

  • Focus and priorities

People want to know, “What are the main things? What outcomes are most important to you? What are your expectations of me and of this project?” Leaders are responsible to define for an organization or team what are the main things and give a ranking of priorities so that people can make decisions about their time and activities. This is why former IBM CEO Lewis V. Gerstner, Jr. said, “Lack of focus is the most common cause of corporate mediocrity.”

3. Being openly “human”

  • Demonstrating the qualities of openness and approachability.

  • Listening

The best leaders are great listeners. Your people have intelligence, talents, and creativity to offer. They see things that could be of great value to your mission, and they see things that need correcting or fixing. A know-it-all leader who thinks he or she has all the answers and intelligence needed makes the grave mistake of ignoring the potential contributions of the team. That’s a foolish waste of your greatest resource.

  • A sense of humor

Humor can be one of your greatest tools to help people keep or regain perspective, and to deal with stress. In fact, research has shown that teams that exhibit the most frequent occurrences of laughter are also the highest producing.

  • Showing vulnerability

It may seem counterintuitive, but there is power in vulnerability. In my leadership development classes through the years, participants have reported that some of the most valuable insights they received were times I departed from the prepared material and told personal stories, many of which highlighted my failures and mistakes.

When you share with people stories about the times you blew it, they can identify with you much better. They see that you, too, have walked a path of development, and that encourages their hope that they can do the same.

People do not ask that leaders be perfect or beyond having needs. They do want, however, leaders who are authentic ─ real, reliable, and human enough to relate to. Li

This article has been adapted from Tim's book, BETTER: The Fundamentals of Leadership, available at


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