Authenticity: Why Leaders Must Have it How do we genuinely care as leaders?
Leadership without authenticity is a cheap imitation. A few years ago I was traveling in China, and I saw many shops where you could buy high-end brands that were fake. They were not the designers’ real handbags, fragrances, shoes, or apparel. They had the look of the real brand, but what they were made of was inferior to what they appeared to be. Sadly, this is a practice seen in many places in the world, pedaling counterfeits.
In the past year, I have been reflecting on authenticity, and it’s role in leadership. I want to share with you here what I’ve learned, what authenticity means, and how we can become more authentic leaders.
Trust and authenticity have been given a lot of attention in leadership circles in the past six years. In this Harvard Business Review article, Herminia Ibarra describes the Authenticity Paradox saying, “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact.” I believe we must first wrap our heads around what it means to be an authentic leader, then develop authenticity and give it a genuine voice in our leadership.
Authentic Leadership—What it Means
Last year I had an opportunity to be in a group who met with Anne Graham Lots, the daughter of the famous preacher, and recently departed, Billy Graham. One of the things she said of her father is that he was the same at home as he was in the public, an honorable, God-fearing man.
When I think of authentic leaders, images of Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, and Nelson Mandela, come to mind. As you look into their soul, you see kindness, love, and compassion that is overflowing, dripping from all sides and seen from all angles. It is consistent under all circumstances, at home, at work, with friends, with foes, in public, under duress, and in comfort. What you see on the outside is what they are truly made of on the inside. You can trust them fully. They are not fake or shallow. They are not putting on a show. They are the real deal—authentic.
We follow authentic leaders. Why? Because we can trust them. We trust that they really care. We feel safe with them and around them. We feel free to share our dreams, our secrets, and our hearts. We can be who we truly are and still feel protected and honored.
Authenticity in Leadership
Our leadership team developed a shared Apple calendar with every staff member’s birthday, wedding anniversary, work anniversary, birthday of spouse and children, and other important dates (such as a passing of an important person). Every day I look at that list, and I send a text message to that person to congratulate or thank them or show them that I am thinking of or praying for them. If someone’s spouse is about to have surgery, I try to do the same. This has become a habit. And most of the time, I stop and try to connect in my mind with a feeling of gratitude for that person for having the honor to work with them.
But sometimes, I send that heartfelt message in the middle of a super busy day, simply out of duty because I know it is the right thing to do. I know if people feel cared for, they will follow me more closely. In those instances, a part of me feels inauthentic, and I don’t like that. I want to be authentic. I want to care genuinely, not as a trick or a gimmick, for those I lead. I don’t want to look like I care, but am preoccupied with life and caring becomes a process. I want what people see of me on the outside to be who I truly am.
One clue that someone’s caring and love is inauthentic is when their overtures of caring are demonstrated only when they need something, and the caring stops once they get it. Not too long ago an old acquaintance attempted to sell me a product she created. A week later, she followed up and asked how my family and I were doing. She had not asked me about the welfare of my family for many years. It seemed now that there was a need on her part, caring for my family became expedient. I totally understand her reaching out, and I don’t hold this against her in any way. But when I received the message, “How are you and your family doing these days?” it struck me how even the smallest version of manufactured caring can be very different from authentic caring.
I hope I convinced you that we must be authentic. Here are some observations of authenticity in leadership:
Authenticity is not automatic.
Staying in the zone of genuine caring and love, where it transcends what people do and goes beyond what we do or feel, is a testament to our maturing character. As we intentionally work to grow deeper, we become more consistent in our care for others. If left to my whims and emotional winds, I would be irritable, frustrated, and definitely not authentically caring.
Authenticity is not easy.
Staying authentic is not easy. It takes work. It takes intention. It requires us working on our fallen nature to force good from our naturally selfish desires.
People can sense our level of authenticity.
I believe people will follow us to the degree of our authenticity. People detect our authenticity quickly. And so, as leaders we must not fake traits and skills that we have not yet acquired. First it is not the right thing to do, but second it is not effective.
May we be authentic in who we are as leaders. When we say we care about our customers, we really do care about their wellbeing, not just the bottom line. When we say we care about those we lead, we mean it, not because it will affect how well we do on our personal leadership journey.
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