Today, there is a strong chorus of call for authentic leadership. Growing level of cynicism that many people have expressed regarding leaders around the globe, who seem to pad their own pockets at the expense of their people and the organisations they serve, demand authentic leaders. The leader of North Korea, who lives in opulence while the majority of his population is starving, prominent members of the U.S. Congress found guilty of taking bribes and misusing public funds, business leaders of World Com, Enron, are among those questionable leaders. Even in Sri Lanka, leaders of Pramuka Bank, Golden Key group and the political leadership spearheaded by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the actions of his close associates are being questioned.
Authentic leadership is a concept introduced by the management expert Bill George in his book ‘Authentic Leadership’. It is an approach to leadership that emphasizes building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers by valuing their inputs and is built on an ethical foundation. This kind of leadership is not blind attention to serving the larger group or one’s individual desires but rather a very high form of altruism that shows how the individual and the group can both achieve their aims. While understanding the core values is at the centre of authentic leadership, over time re-establishing them, as new circumstances and challenges are confronted constitutes the practice and development of authentic leadership.
Many leaders, especially those in their early careers, are trying so hard to establish themselves in the world that they leave little time for self-exploration. They strive to achieve success in tangible ways that are recognized in the external world—money, fame, power, status or a rising stock price. Often their drive enables them to be professionally successful for a while, but they are unable to sustain. As they age, they may find something is missing in their lives and realize they are holding back from being the person they want to be. Knowing their authentic selves requires the courage and honesty to open up and examine their experiences. When they do so, leaders become more humane and willing to be vulnerable. At the root of authentic leadership lies ‘gaining self-awareness’. Dominant attributes of authentic leadership consist of:
VALUES - Practicing values and principles
Leadership principles are values translated into action. Having a solid base of values and testing them under fire enables to develop the principles used in leading. The values that form the basis for authentic leadership are derived from the individual’s beliefs and convictions and should be displayed under pressure. It is easy to list values and to live by them when things are going well. When the individual’s success, career or even life hangs in the balance only we learn what is important, what we are prepared to sacrifice and what trade-offs we are willing to make.
PURPOSE - Understanding passion and purpose
Authentic leaders recognize that leadership is not about their success or about getting loyal subordinates to follow them. They know the key to a successful organisation is having empowered leaders at all levels. They not only inspire those around them, they empower those individuals to step up and lead. For authentic leaders, no individual achievement can equal the pleasure of leading a group of people to achieve a worthy goal. That’s the challenge and the fulfilment of authentic leadership.
HEART - Building support teams
Leaders cannot succeed on their own; even the most outwardly confident executives need support and advice. Without strong relationships to provide different perspectives, it is very easy to lose the way. Authentic leaders find that their support teams provide affirmation, advice, perspective and calls for course corrections when needed. Those teams counsel them in times of uncertainty, help them in times of difficulty and celebrate with them in times of success. After their hardest days, leaders find comfort in being with people on whom they can rely, so they can be open and vulnerable. During the low points, they cherish the friends who appreciate them for who they are, not what they are.
SELF DISCIPLINE - Integrating life to stay grounded
Authentic leaders have a steady and confident presence at every occasion. Integrating their lives is one of the greatest challenges leaders face. To lead a balanced life, it is necessary to bring together all of its constituent elements—work, family, community and friends—so that the leader displays same behaviour in different environments. Integration takes discipline, particularly during stressful times when it is easy to become reactive and slip back into bad habits. For authentic leaders, personal and professional lives are not a zero-sum game. There is no way to avoid stress when you are responsible for people, organisations, outcomes and managing the constant uncertainties of the environment. The higher you go, the greater your freedom to control your destiny but also the higher the degree of stress. The question is not whether you can avoid stress but how you can control it to maintain your own sense of equilibrium.
RELATIONSHIPS - Balancing extrinsic and intrinsic motivations
For authentic leaders, it is important to understand what drives them and ensure sustaining high levels of motivation. Most leaders are propelled to achieve by measuring their success against the outside world’s parameters – extrinsic motivation. They enjoy the recognition and status that come with promotions and financial rewards. Intrinsic motivations, on the other hand, are derived from their sense of the meaning of their life. They are closely linked to one’s life story and the way one frames it. Examples include personal growth, helping other people develop, taking on social causes and making a difference in the world. The key is to find a balance between desires for external validation and the intrinsic motivations that provide fulfilment in work.
Core of authentic leadership is self-awareness, self-realization. To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. As Lord Buddha preached, “One must first embark on the formidable journey of self-discovery in order to create a vision with authentic soul.”
(This is the 23rd column of the leadership series by Eng. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana [BSc Eng (Hons), MBA, CEng, FIE (SL), MCS (SL), MIDPM (UK), FIAP (UK), MBCS (UK)], a Management, HR, OD and ICT Consultant, Corporate Trainer, Executive Coach, Consultant - HRD - Goodhope Asia Holdings Ltd. He can be contacted at email@example.com)