Few transitions test one’s character like moving to a senior leadership role. It’s one thing to gain mastery of a particular function or skillset; it’s quite another to take responsibility for, and earn the respect of, employees from different backgrounds, functions, and cultures.
For many leaders, this transition is marked by a period of self-doubt. The newly appointed ask themselves: Am I tough enough? Extroverted enough? Can I deal with the constant exposure? Faced with this uncertainty, leaders naturally look for models they can emulate.
But interestingly, imitating the leadership styles of others may not be the best way to go. “People often think they need to change or mold themselves into an idealized version of leadership, ” says Brenda Booth, a clinical professor of management at the Kellogg School. “This creates a kind of impostor syndrome. They think that if they are truly themselves, people won’t accept it.”
Becoming a leader does not require adopting a new persona; it means amplifying your true self with focus and discipline. The key is to be authentic—to draw from one’s own experiences, values, and strengths.
“Authenticity is not a license to be excessively focused on the self,” says Brooke Vuckovic, an adjunct lecturer of leadership coaching at the Kellogg School. “It’s about being aligned with your character and values in order to lead effectively. That takes work.”
So how does a new senior leader achieve this alignment? Booth and Vuckovic offer five tips for how to be an authentic leader.
1. Know yourself. “The cornerstone of authenticity is self-awareness,” Booth says. “It is about being comfortable in your own skin so you can lead the organization in a way where you do not feel ethically compromised or like a charlatan.”
In part, this means being aware of your unique character, values, strengths, and shortcomings. Decades of research on leadership shows that there is no one right way to lead. Instead, what distinguishes leaders is their ability to understand the impact they have on other people. “Many leaders are characteristically outgoing,” Booth says. “They thrive in social settings and give bold, inspirational speeches. However, more introverted types can be great leaders, too.”
Take, for example, Douglas Conant, a self-described introvert (and Kellogg alum) who became CEO of Campbell’s Soup in 2001—a turbulent year. Despite overseeing a period of layoffs, Conant was able to boost morale, achieve results, and earn the respect of employees throughout the company. He did this not by delivering grandiose, fist-pounding speeches at company-wide meetings, but by drawing upon his natural gift for connecting in more intimate settings. One of his trademark moves was to walk the halls, which allowed him to meet employees one-on-one or in smaller groups. And he always sent handwritten notes to those he wanted to acknowledge. “That was his version of authentic leadership,” Booth says. “He had a personal touch.” The point is not to find the appropriate dial on the introvert–extrovert meter; it is simply to be aware of your personality and use it to your advantage.
“Authenticity is not a license to be excessively focused on the self. It’s about being aligned with your character and values in order to lead effectively. That takes work.” - Brooke Vuckovic
Perhaps even more fundamental than personality is understanding one’s values and purpose. One way to explore your values and purpose, Vuckovic says, is to take the time to review your life in detailed chapters, which can help you understand yourself in narrative terms. “Stories help leaders explain where they came from, what they stand for, and why they lead. All of this is related to the vision they project,” Vuckovic says.
“Most leaders are not driven by shareholder value alone,” she continues. So it is critical to develop a strong understanding of what motivates you—and how you want to motivate others. “Is recognition important? Is having a fun-loving culture important? The clearer you are about what motivates you and those around you, the more authentic and effective you will be as a leader.”
2. Learn to connect. Whether you are speaking to a packed auditorium or chatting with a single employee, it is important to make a sincere connection that matches the needs of the situation.
“This capacity to connect and demonstrate ease is a central component of executive presence. Those who demonstrate the qualities that make up ‘likability’ convey warmth, for certain, but also congruence,” Vuckovic says.
In other words, your actions should align with your words, and your words with your emotional affect. But being congruent also means adapting to the situation at hand. If a leader prepares for a large meeting but it turns out only six people attend, it might put others off if that leader insisted on formalistically sticking to the script. “It’s usually incongruence that makes people feel you are inauthentic,” she says.
Leaders should also be hyper-aware of the culture in which they are operating. “You want to be yourself—but with care,” Vuckovic says.
3. Be discreet. “Being an authentic leader doesn’t mean revealing inappropriate personal details, talking about yourself incessantly, or telling people how you feel all the time,” Vuckovic says. “The point of being authentic is that it frees you up to be others-focused. So you should always ask yourself before personal disclosure: Is this relevant to the task at hand? Does this contribute to this individual understanding my values and decision here?”
Disclosing too much information—especially if it is highly personal—can have a negative impact on a leader’s reputation and can call into questions their capacity to self-monitor.
There is also the question of how transparent leaders should be about high-level decision making. “Sometimes being fully transparent is neither prudent nor an option,” Booth says. Consider a scenario where senior management is discussing a possible reorganization. If a decision has not yet been made, it would not make sense to share this information with employees, since productivity would clearly suffer. And in the case of a merger or spin-off, top management must sometimes keep information confidential due to fiduciary reasons.
4. Play to your strengths. Every leader has strengths and weaknesses. Some are good at boosting morale; others are good at ensuring productivity. Some are natural-born mentors; others prefer to keep more distance. It is important to know your limitations and figure out how to compensate for them—possibly by making sure other leaders can assist in playing those roles.
“If you need to impose cost reductions or cut staff, that would require tough leadership,” Booth says. “If you need to boost morale—that’s a different kind of leadership.” A single leader may be able to do both authentically, but not everyone has that range. “Some people are hardwired to be hard as nails,” she says, pointing to Donald Rumsfeld, who was famous in the intelligence community for ruthless efficiency. “He would randomly call first-line supervisors or analysts and ask them what they were doing,” she says. “He’s not the guy for boosting morale.”
5. Keep requesting feedback. Authentic leaders welcome feedback, both formal and informal, though Booth cautions against worrying too much about popularity. “Being authentic is not a popularity contest,” Booth says. “People may not like what you do even if you are authentic. But if you focus on what is right for the organization, make ethical choices, and treat employees with dignity in the process, then chances are you will earn the respect of the vast majority.”
If the feedback deals with a known weakness—for example, chronic impatience—it is helpful to track your own progress. A leader may occasionally learn of a flaw they had not been aware of—say, awkward body language. They will also have to keep the context of the feedback in mind when deciding on how to respond.
Vuckovic takes the example of an introverted leader whose predecessor was a charismatic extrovert: “Someone might say to you, ‘I wish you would hold more rah-rah meetings like we used to—they got people really excited,’” she says. “And, let’s say that you’ve seen those and you know you can’t pull them off authentically and that you would be a poor imitation of another. First, you need to determine what those rah-rah meetings achieved—was it communication? Socializing with others? Celebration? For you, it may better to achieve those goals in a different way or to support someone else conducting those meetings. Identify what is needed, and then determine the ‘how’ in a way that is authentic to you.”
“You need honest people to act as whetstones—to keep you sharp and in line with your values,” Vuckovic says. “But remember: you get to filter that feedback and decide what to act on. There may be times when you say, ‘I hear you, I understand what you’re saying, but I’m not going to change a thing.’”