June 29, 2017
Authentic leaders draw the best efforts in followers and are described as valuable participants in collaborative change efforts. Here are three key attributes of authentic leadership.
The first attribute is integrity; the person speaks of their personal values and they act in ways that demonstrate why those values matter in the context of the current change effort.
For example, a leader publicly states that the opinions and thoughts of senior management are critical to the success of their change effort. Yet, repeatedly during meetings where there is important information being reviewed, the leader is distracted by emails and steps out of meetings for “important calls.” In addition, on more than one occasion recommendations made by task forces convened by the leader are only partially followed and there is no reason given. The leader, finding the change effort stalling, is shocked to learn that senior management feels frustrated and unmotivated to invest the time and effort needed.
The second attribute is being honest about one’s contribution to roadblocks and mistakes.
When a leader learns that in fact their mindset, preferences, or decisions are contributing to a failure to make progress on a change effort, their ability to openly discuss their thoughts and actions, their learning, and their commitment to change, generates a sense of trust and safety for followers and peers.
This may seem counterintuitive in our culture. The belief that leaders must have the answers and get it right implies that leaders who don’t get it right are incompetent and those who admit to being part of the problem are weak. But this is not the case. Leaders able to put learning above all else send an authentic message: Work is hard, none of us is perfect, so let’s get better in pursuit of success.
The final attribute is being forthright in providing feedback to those around us.
A colleague of mine worked for a period at a company as a contractor. At the end of her time, a person in the company asked her why senior leadership was not giving him a real chance at a senior position. My colleague’s response was simple, “If it were up to me, after a few hard conversations, I probably would have fired you by now. You are argumentative to a fault, you disrupt meetings to make your point, you rarely hear what others are saying to you and you are quite comfortable blaming others. While you are smart and skilled, these other attributes put a cloud around your work.”
Later the person called my colleague and stated, “That was brutal, but thank you. Nobody has really been that honest and blunt with me and certainly the CEO has never told me about these concerns.” My colleague knows this to be the case, the lack of honest feedback by the CEO to this person was causing all sorts of motivational problems within the senior team. Why bother if the boss is just going to avoid conflict.
Authenticity provides a foundation for good group performance and group citizenship behaviors. These show up as high levels of trust and positive psychological capital in teamwork, both essential for change efforts.
Sometimes, when the team is negative, it may be because those in power are not behaving authentically. A change in the authentic stance of the leader can change the tone and productivity of the entire team.