Authentic Leadership: It’s The
Content, Not The Label That Matters
Leadership is a subject at the forefront of many people’s minds these days. Perhaps because what’s happening around the world is showing us what our ‘leaders’ are and who among them we think of as ‘good leaders’.
Given the lack of real attention to true leadership development in schools, universities and careers when current leaders of countries, organisations and industries were making their way through life, it perhaps shouldn’t surprise or shock us that so few of them turn out to be good leaders.
But what is a good leader? Or using the words so often heard today: what is an authentic leader?
Recently I sat down for a conversation with Rachael Kempin to try and find
the answer to that very question.
Rachael is an HR consultant, coach and mentor with extensive international, cross-culture experience as she lived and worked in the UK, France, New Zealand, Central Asia and the Middle East. In her 25+ years in human resources, Rachael has seen all kinds of leaders in action; from really good to really bad and everything in between. As a result I suspected she had a lot of time and opportunity to think about what makes an authentic leader.
So when I asked what her reaction is when she hears the words “authentic leadership”, I was surprised when she answered, “I want to cringe”. Going on she explained, “I find ‘authentic’ gets thrown around a lot without really understanding what it is to be authentic. We are expected to fit into the mould of work [culture], of the corporate environment” and that often makes it hard or even impossible for people to express themselves fully while at work. “Unless you are very lucky and you find an organisation that really does have a good leader.”
It isn’t so much about the label that is attached to the kind of leadership we need. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called authentic, moral, personal leadership or something else. It’s the content of leadership that matters.
Over the course of our conversations we came up with a list of qualities and skills that we feel good i.e. authentic leaders have.
The content of good leadership
● They are prepared to listen
● They support growth
● They want to learn
● They give trust without hesitation
● They surround themselves with experts
● They have good coaching skills
● They are authentic
They are prepared to listen
Rachel explains, “The best leaders I’ve encountered were the ones who were able to listen. To say, “I’ve heard all the arguments, weighed all opinions including my own. This is the decision I’m now making and these are the reasons for my decision”.
We may not always agree with them, perhaps not even like them, but because they listened with an open mind, honestly considered the arguments and explained the process they went through, we can accept the decision.
They support growth
Good leaders are “approachable, straightforward, honest and really want to see [their] people grow”.
They are aware of the talents, skills and ambitions of the people that work for them and will provide them with good opportunities to grow in those areas.
They want to learn
Leaders don’t know everything and a good leader is unafraid to admit that. They are “unafraid to be questioned [by] and learn [from]” the people they work with or that work for them.
By openly admitting when they don’t know something, they create a safe space in which others can do the same.
They encourage giving them honest feedback and in doing so they create an environment in which giving and receiving such feedback is normalized. Learning and growth then becomes an integral part of the culture they create in the group they are responsible for.
They give trust without hesitation
Good leaders trust the people they work with. They don’t ask them to first earn that trust. In fact, it’s the other way around. They know they are the one who has to earn the trust of the people they are asked to lead.
When trust is damaged because mistakes are made, they know mistakes are human. They will work with people in order for them to learn from their mistake, instead of punishing them. In doing so they help re-build the self-
confidence of the person who made the mistake as well as their trust in that person. They don’t rescind their trust in them over honest mistakes.
This doesn’t mean they will let a serious breach of trust slide. Such a breach can most definitely — and likely will — result in serious consequences for the person who breached that trust; with termination of the relationship as the most serious consequence.
They surround themselves with experts
A good leader knows to surround themselves with experts. People that are exceptionally good at their job, confident in their abilities and unafraid to express themselves.
They serve those experts to the best of their ability, so they can do their best work without interference on content from their leader.
As a former boss of Rachael used to say, “My job is not to know your job. My job is to lead this organisation”.
They have good coaching skills
Closely related to other qualities and skills mentioned is the necessity for leaders to have good coaching skills. This requires them to have heart and empathy. To know the stories of the people they lead and identify with their
emotions without making them their own.
On the one hand they need these skills to serve the individual people they lead. To know their stories and help them become the best they can be in service to the group, department and organisation.
On the other hand they have to use their coaching skills to put together a good team. They know how to bring out the best in each team member in a way that not only compliments the qualities of other team members but also makes the team stronger.
Being a good coach and leader they also know it is sometimes necessary to cut a person from the team (in a compassionate way of course), because their presence actually makes the team weaker. Even when that person has qualities and skills superior to those of other team members.
A good leader knows it is the sum of the individuals that determine the strength of a group, department or organisation; not the individuals.
They are authentic
According to dictionary.com, authentic means “representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or the person identified”.
An authentic leader is someone who represents their true nature or beliefs and allows others to do the same.
True leaders are unafraid to be their authentic selves. They know who they are and what their values are. They live and work in alignment with those values and because of that there is no real difference in the way they present themselves in different situations.
When you work with or for them, you will always know what to expect from them.
Setting this example — like the qualities mentioned previously — contributes to a safe environment and encourages others to bring their full(er) selves to work as well.
What about autocratic and weak leadership?
Of these two leadership styles a weak leader can quite possibly do more damage than an autocratic leader. At least to the people they are supposed to lead.
An autocratic or authoritarian leader allows very little input, often comes to decisions based solely upon their own judgments and beliefs and very rarely listens to those they are tasked with leading.
This style of leadership tends to hurt morale, leads to resentment, a lack of trust and in extreme cases to such toxic environments that people will leave when an opportunity to do so presents itself.
There is one advantage to autocratic leadership: it is very clear who is in charge and people therefore know what to expect. Not wanting to risk the wrath of their autocratic leader they make safe choices in line with that leader’s expectations. Even when those choices go against their professional and expert opinion.
When a weak leader is put in charge that clarity is sorely lacking.
A weak leader is often afraid to make decisions, lacking in moral integrity, doesn’t inspire trust and frequently is unwilling or even incapable of learning to become better.
This style of leadership, like autocratic leadership, hurts morale and is detrimental to the quality of output from the group but for a very different reason: people never know what to expect from a weak leader and choose safe over necessary but more risk-involved behaviour.
Is authentic leadership better than other leadership styles?
Perhaps the best possible answer is that the kind of leadership that is very much needed right now at every level in society — and not just in organisations — is a more compassionate leadership.
Leadership that has all the qualities and skills mentioned above.
Leadership that creates and supports an environment in which everyone can thrive, be inspired and create their best contribution to the common goal of the group, department, organisation, community and/or society.
We can call that authentic leadership but ultimately it doesn’t matter what label is put upon it. What matters is that our leaders lead with heart, compassion, empathy, strength and authenticity.
A daring guide and coach, over the last 15 years, Gerdi Verwoert has guided many people both through mountains and towards leadership in their personal and professional lives. She is a former consultant and project manager, an adventurer at heart and passionate about taking her clients out of every day, stressful ‘civilized’ life to bring them into Nature. Looking at life from literally a different perspective they also benefit from the regenerative benefits for mental and overall well-being Nature provides. A member of ICF, Gerdi trained with the International Coaching Academy, has studied Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Transformational Coaching and is also a certified mountain hiking guide and ski instructor.