Naomi* is smart, very experienced and cares about her work and her staff, yet, none of that comes through when she is on the job. Instead, her direct reports all see someone who is closed off, difficult to read and difficult to please. They don't feel they know what she wants and they don't feel supported by her. However, when I talk with Naomi she expresses her deep care for her team and her desire to see them all excel and she truly sees herself as supporting them in their growth. So, what's up with the disconnect? Why are the members of her team so unaware of her intentions?
Through coaching, Naomi is realizing that at work she is hiding her best self and that because her vision of what a leader should be is not aligned with who she is she shows up as decisive one day and inflexible the other while essentially acting in ways she 'thinks' a good leader should act. The problem is that this act changes from day to day and her staff don't know what to trust in her and are clueless as to what her vision is and what is expected of them. The employees she holds in high regard and wants to nurture in their careers actually think she is against them. Why is she hiding her best self?
This is not an unusual story. Most of us show up at work with a huge pile of misguided beliefs we have gathered along our career paths. These are the messages we have internalized from the movies we've watched, from what we've heard from our parents, from the media reports on high profile leaders and from the people we've been led by. We internalize these beliefs and these, in turn, influence our behaviour, but not all of these beliefs are serving us well. Many may be misconstrued and causing us to hide behind an image we've created of the mythical great leader.
These beliefs come in all shapes and sizes depending on our own individual journeys, but usually they go something like this:
- That to show caring will have our team members take advantage of us.
- That if we share too much of our thoughts, desires, foibles, people won't respect us.
- That to be a great leader, we have to be X and not Z; speak this way and not that way.
- That great leaders are decisive and have their fingers on the pulse of every little detail.
For Naomi, distrust grew among her team members because she was uncertain of her own power as a person and easily swayed by others’ thoughts or expressions of concern and she would react, like a rudderless boat on a wind swept lake, rather than steer her course from her own values and sense of vision for her team and organization.
What if she had taken time to acknowledge team members 'on the fly' instead of waiting until formal performance reviews (when criticism always drowns out the acknowledgements)?
Would people have had a better sense of where they stood with her and of how to fulfill her leadership vision?
What if she had shared her intentions her team members?
Would they have felt more clear of her expectation?
What if she had let her natural curiosity shine and asked questions of her team rather than 'telling' them?
Would they have felt engaged and heard?
What if she had shared her thoughts on 'why' decisions were being made instead of trying to appear as the strong, decisive leader?
Would this have engendered trust and transparency and a culture of mentorship?
What if she had just told everyone that she believes in getting to know everyone via lunch dates, instead of cancelling all lunches with her direct reports when someone complained that they thought she was favouring?
Would her team have better understood her guiding values…and that she valued each of them?
Naomi's fear of what others would think had her hide all that was potentially good about her as a leader, and instead, trot out antiquated leadership styles that management researchers have shown to be detrimental.
Are you clear on what you believe about being a great leader?
- How are these beliefs supporting or hindering your leadership?
- Do you know what it is to be an authentic leader?
- WHO ARE YOU?
- What do you stand for?
- What is unique and quirky about you?
- What are the thoughts and sense of purpose that drive your actions?
- Are you hiding this from people when you show up for work, and if so, why?
Exploring these questions and more about yourself is not just going to increase your confidence in yourself as a leader, according the research, as an authentic leader you will:
- Enhance relational engagement and better build positive and rewarding relationships which creates trust and cohesion among the group. When authentic leaders create a trusting environment, they allow employees to be themselves, which studies show boosts productivity by as much as 30%.
- Improve the collaborative environment which, in turn, improves employee satisfaction making them feel like equal members of the group.
- Better guarantee the ethical and moral standards are high. This was demonstrated in a 2016 study in the UAE in the petroleum sector, which confirmed authentic leadership significantly increases employee engagement and organizational citizenship behaviour.
- Be more productive and experience lower rates of burnout that their inauthentic counterparts.
What is it to be authentic?
What does it mean to 'know who you are'?
“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.” ~Brooke Vuckovic, adjunct lecturer of leadership coaching at the Kellogg School
Early research in the leadership literature identified authenticity as genuineness, trustworthiness, and needing 'to be true to ourselves and true to the world" (Terry, 1993). Additionally, authenticity is acting upon your true beliefs, strengths and values and helping followers do the same.
The actions of the authentic leader are:
- Knowing oneself
- Listening to others
- Expressing real thoughts and feelings that come from within
- Appreciating others, and
- Serving others.
You cannot be an authentic leader without clarity about your inner self and acting from that clarity.
The authentic leader is the one who drops all pretences when looking at themselves so they reflect truth, honesty, and a genuine concern for others in a way that has people want to exceed their goals and perceive limits. The heart of being an authentic leader is in revealing a strong character, values and self-discipline through your behaviours.
An important distinction to be made is that being an authentic leader is not about self-proclaiming your authenticity, nor is it a free pass to behave however you want. Rather, it is about demonstrating authenticity through your actions and behaviours which are driven by a constant questioning of your behaviours and your core values as a means to improve self-awareness.
The cornerstones of authenticity are:
- Being true to yourself and your values.
- Being open with other people.
- Doing the right thing in operational and moral terms, not in terms of what is good for you.
I argue that it is worth the effort to untangle your beliefs to gain awareness of how they hinder your capacity as a leader. Research shows that the net effect of showing up as authentic does have a positive influence on follower performance (Ryan, Deci, 2001). And in research by Walumbwa, et al,in 2008 authentic leadership was found to have many clear personal benefits such as improved feelings of friendliness, higher levels of emotional wellbeing, additional 'best possible' levels of self esteem, and elevated performance.
The challenge with being authentic in your leadership is that it requires courage, strength of character, a strong sense of the common good and the ability to cope with fear and quiet your internal saboteur voice.
*Name change to protect anonymity.
You might also enjoy reading To Become a Leader You Must Become Yourself.