Leading with Conviction: 4 Essential Qualities of an Authentic Leader

Leading with a Mandate: 4 Essential Qualities of an Authentic Leader

Not long ago I read the news of Elon Musk stepping down from the president’s economic advisory council. His reason was because he disagreed with the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Afterward, a string of other CEOs followed suit, saying on principle they couldn’t stay on the committee. This made me think about the idea of Authentic Leadership, and how we’re seeing more and more leaders trying to emulate this style.

So what’s authentic leadership and why does it matter to you? Well, the idea is that a leader builds their legitimacy through honesty, ethics, and valuing the input of the people they lead. Authentic leaders value openness while still retaining a strong sense of moral standards. Their authority, the reason people follow them, is built on the consistency they show in all aspects of their leadership—and more so, their life.

It matters to you because having the qualities of an authentic leader will help you grow in your career and increase your positive influence wherever you go. You’ll shape the culture around you too, leading others to emulate the high standards you’ve set out to achieve. Along with that, your team will be more energized, and have a higher commitment level because they’re more invested in the work.

4 Essential Qualities of an Authentic Leader

  1. Having a Deeper Level of Self-Awareness
  2. Internalizing your Moral Perspective
  3. Taking a Balanced Approach to Processing Information
  4. Being Consistent with your Relational Transparency


1. Having a Deeper Level of Self-Awareness

I’ve written previously about the need for self-awareness in developing yourself into a positive contributor, but it goes even further than that. It’s the basis of any meaningful transformation and critical to your career growth. While you might think you already have it, it’s not really something that you have or you don’t. Instead, it’s something that you need to continuously develop. Imagine self-awareness as a scale rather than just an on-off switch.

The goal of an authentic leader is to come to grips with their core self. So for you, you need to really dig deep and understand who you are and the values that you really care about. I’m sure you love honesty, but dig deep and see if this is really a core value of yours. Does it matter to you if people lie sometimes? Does it matter to you that you lie sometimes?

You can do this exercise with any value that you might tell yourself that you espouse. Another example is working hard. Someone might say that they value it, but in their day-to-day they’re personally fine with taking it easy. Maybe instead, their core value is to work smart and by doing so they don’t have to work so hard. Figure it out for yourself by reflecting on all your core values.

Along with core values, you’ll also want to hone in on your identity, emotions, motivations, and goals. How do you identify yourself? What labels or attributes do you associate with your leadership style. Which emotions do you value most and express on a regular basis. What motivates you to move forward and what goals are you setting for yourself.

This exercise in self-awareness requires you to go further than you may have gone before. At the end, you should be able to clearly articulate what you stand for and what matters most to you. It’s almost like having a mission statement for yourself that you’ll be able to convey to the people around you.

2. Internalizing your Moral Perspective

I’ll admit that last point was a lot to take in, but I’m really trying to go deep here to help move you towards being a truly authentic leader. It’s a must that you identify what you stand for; that’s how you build your moral perspective. Having this standard will help you stand firm when you’re confronted with moral dilemmas—something that’s becoming more common these days.

An internalized moral perspective boils down to not allowing outside pressure to control you. A weak leader, or an inauthentic leader, will go where the tide takes them. They’re willing to compromise who they are (or who they think they are), in order to achieve some gain. What we’re trying to do instead, is to use our internalized moral compass to guide us through challenging situations.

If you think of some of the most influential and impactful people, you’ll see a common trend of an unwavering stance when it comes to their beliefs. This is why they have legitimacy amongst their followers and why that legitimacy turns into authority. You’ll most likely not have to face such a career inhibiting dilemma as someone like Muhammad Ali, but the decisions you make will eventually define what you’re known for. This matters in your career but also in your everyday life.

3. Taking a Balanced Approach to Processing Information

Promoting openness is a key attribute of an authentic leader. Yes, you can say to people that you’re open to all ideas, but if you yourself aren’t processing input properly, your words and actions won’t match. I’m sure you’ve had a boss or colleague that would say they wanted everyone’s opinion, but would be quick to dismiss what people had to say. That’s an example of someone who thinks openness is a core value of theirs, but in reality it isn’t. In some cases it still could be, but their inability to properly processing information causes others to think those ideals are just lip-service.

What you need to work on doing is analyzing information objectively. This involves exploring other people’s opinions before really making a decision. If you call a meeting to discuss an idea, but already know the direction you want to take, why call the meeting? This is fake openness that the people around you will pick up on very quickly.

The key word here is balanced. Sometimes you do need to make decisions without the input of others, and other times it’s valuable to include the group. Balancing these two scenario’s is important. Likewise, balancing how you analyze people’s suggestions objectively is important too. You don’t want your meetings derailed by ideas that aren’t gaining traction. Yet, at the same time, you want to make sure you’re really considering the idea before you determine that it’s worth moving on from it.

I’d boil this down to creating an environment of openness for everyone’s ideas, but still not being afraid to reject the one’s that won’t accomplish results. You’re still the leader, after all.

4. Being Consistent with your Relational Transparency

For some, this last topic comes naturally, but for the majority of us, it takes real work. It’s all about presenting yourself as the true you to others. If you’re faking who you are, or what you stand for, eventually you’ll be found out. Once that happens, you’ll lose the authority and legitimacy that you were trying to build with your fake persona. Fakers never make it in the end.

Be honest with who you are and open about it with others. By now, you’ve discovered your core values so it’s time to make sure you’re not giving off two versions of yourself. This is where authenticity is really established, because your relationship with people is how you’ll mainly be practicing being an authentic leader.

If you have two sides, one with your boss and one with your reports or colleagues, this has to stop. If you have values in your work life but different ones in your personal life, you need to come to grips with that. If you treat your spouse poorly but your co-workers with respect, that’s a huge red flag. You can’t have standards for yourself when dealing with one group of people and not for another.

The common thread here is that an authentic leader is not just authentic in one environment, but instead authentic in all that they do. Authenticity transcends all aspects of your life and this is why this leadership style is important for you. With the increasing blend of private and public life via social media, you need to be able to present the same person to everyone at the same time.

What You Need to Takeaway

Authentic leadership matters to you because it helps grow your influence, legitimacy, and authority. It’ll also help you to bridge the gap between your personal and work life—something increasingly important in the age of social media. Life is a lot simpler when you have a core set of values that span all aspects of your day. Not only will you know how to properly deal with dilemmas, you’ll remove the guilt and anxiety involved with not doing as you preach.

Start by working on your core values. These may come from family, religious, cultural, work, or personal experiences. Build on that thought and see if you really espouse these values in all aspects of your day. Then think further about how these values benefit your team and the work you do. Form an identity around all of this for yourself and keep up with being consistent with that image.

The best test for whether authentic leadership is effective is through your own practice of it. I’ll personally say, after studying many different leadership styles, that it is effective. I believe it’s a key contributor to not only increasing team performance but also establishing a positive company culture. If you, and the leaders around you, work to adopt these qualities, I’m sure you’ll start to see the difference yourself.


Credit: Feature image by Freepik

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