Leadership Careers Mar 7, 2016

5 Tips to Become an Authen­tic Leader

Sin­cer­i­ty can go a long way when step­ping into a new role.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on insights from

Brenda Ellington Booth

Brooke Vuckovic

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.

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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.”

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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.’”

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, Iowa.

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