What is authentic leadership?

byPerry Dougherty
An authentic leader is a true representative of their beliefs and values in thought, in action, and in relationship to others.
Most people know authentic leadership when they see it but have a hard time figuring out what makes up the authenticity factor we trust.

We’ve found that it comes down to representing your beliefs and values in action. What’s nice is that this definition can apply to an individual as well as to an entire organization. And it offers a clear pathway for development!

Half of the development work is the inner work of figuring out what you believe and value. The other half is about bringing those beliefs and values in action and being accountable for when you go astray.

In a way, leading authentically means being an author of your life, bringing the stories and stuff inside out. This metaphor needs a bit of unpacking, though. At first pass, authoring your life might seem devoid of the self-inquiry that authentic leadership calls us to do. It might sound more like creating and selling an image or a story, which might actually be the opposite of what we’re looking for in leaders. But if we really look at authors who are successfully generating ongoing original work that is trusted and engaged by their readers, they are immersed in this cycle of turning their lived experiences or understandings into ideas and then turning the stories birthed within them into words. Authentic leadership relies on a similar cycle of making meaning of experiences inwardly and then putting that meaning out into the world in order to have another experience and begin again.

The more you embrace life and leadership as an ever unfolding story, the more this praxis (cycle of reflection and action) becomes intuitive and natural. Often the biggest stumbling blocks are either not taking the time to figure out what you believe and value or expecting to arrive at a time when you get to stop engaging the praxis.

A robust authentic leadership development program (whether formal or informal) must support leaders in developing the “muscle” needed to engage this cycle as a matter of both ritual and instinct.

Authenticity is not something that you can develop on your own: it requires relationships with others and the world. It is only through relationship that your beliefs and values are turned into action. It is also not you can develop without failing at it. As human beings, we are all unreflective or inauthentic sometimes. It is your awareness and willingness to receive feedback from the world and others in those moments of misalignment that will allow you to begin again .

How can you seek greater alignment, honesty, and clarity between your inner and outer lives? Leading in this way is as simple as meeting yourself and others right where you are in any given moment. Leading in this way is also as radically aspirational as actively living into the ideals of an ever-emerging sense of self and offering others space to do the same. There is freedom in this orientation to leadership if we are willing to dive into the reflection, the action, and the relationships.

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