Just be yourself

“Self-awareness is only part of what makes an authentic leader,”

Authentic leadership


Business is a landscape often peppered with jargon and buzzwords.

One term that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately is authentic leadership. But it is just another buzzword, or is it actually a useful concept for business leaders?

The term was first coined by Bill George, a Harvard academic and a former chief executive of medical technology firm Medtronic, in a 2003 book. He’s since written many more books, exploring the concept of leadership and authenticity.

The idea of authentic leadership is pretty simple. “Being an authentic leader is being who you are, being the genuine person,” George said in a 2015 interview with the Harvard Business Review.

Admitting when you are wrong is also key to a culture of authenticity. “I think authentic leaders are willing to admit their mistakes, because that gives other people permission to admit their mistakes as well,” he said. “And then we can solve problems.”

While George is credited with coining the phrase authentic leadership, the idea itself is not a new one.  According to Kate Quane, senior executive coach at Praesta, an executive coaching organisation, the idea of “being true to oneself” has been around since the ancient Greeks.

From her experience of working with senior leaders, authentic leadership hinges on self-awareness and the ability to choose “your style or response in the moment, depending on what will bring about the best outcome in a given situation”.

Leaders should be true to their values, have confidence in their ability, be open to the views of others and have the “courage to continuously stretch, develop and learn”, Quane said.

For business leaders, it is crucial to give yourself the time to grow as a leader, and not get too lost in the day-to-day tasks of running your business or leading your team.

George suggests setting yourself developmental goals, and treating it like any other business goal. “It’s easy to look ahead in the year and set very specific goals, particularly quantitative goals, for your work and things like that. But I think you need to have in there a developmental goal of what you’re going to do to develop yourself,” he explained.

While the idea of authentic leadership has been floating about for quite a while, trust — or rather a lack of it –has put it firmly on the radar in recent years.

“Authentic leadership is now ‘coming of age’ in response to the many corporate downfalls that have occurred leading up to and since the recession,” said Billy Byrne, a leadership development specialist at KinchLyons. “We look at organisations like Volkswagen and the emissions debacle, or the current tracker mortgage scandal in the Irish banks and ask ourselves,‘how on earth do such intelligent people make such poor decisions?’.”

To rebuild lost trust, business leaders have only one choice, George said. Be authentic.

While the simplicity of just being yourself is an appealing leadership strategy, it’s not without its detractors.

“The main criticisms often result from those who view authentic leadership as merely a thin veneer rather than a value-driven way of leading others,” Byrne explained.

One criticism is that authentic leadership is too inward looking and too focused on self-awareness. Byrne can see the point, but stresses that “self-awareness is not the same as authentic leadership”.

“Self-awareness is only part of what makes an authentic leader,” he said. “In my view there is a world of difference between a leader who is authentic and someone who is an authentic leader.”

What’s the difference? In a word, empathy.

Byrne believes that a true authentic leader “connects at a personal level with others”.

“They can be identified by their willingness to display their vulnerability while at the same time having the courage to stand up for what is right,” he said.