Warren Buffett lives in the same house he bought in the 1950s for $31,000, drives a $45,000 car, has a $100,000 salary, refuses pay raises, picks his friends up from the airport instead of giving them extravagant gifts, eats McDonald’s for breakfast every day, and plays bridge as a hobby. In other words, despite having a net worth of $115 billion, Buffett hasn’t changed his lifestyle. Although he became a billionaire in 1990 and has consistently ranked on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people since, you’d never know it if you didn’t recognize him. This is because he practices authentic leadership, meaning no matter what, he remains true to who he is. As such, generations of leaders respect, admire, and look up to him as a role model.
Practicing authentic leadership is important because it maximizes a leader’s influence, thus making them more effective. When followers perceive leaders as real and relatable, they are more likely to buy into someone’s vision and follow them. However, when people feel leaders are inauthentic and phony, they become suspicious, skeptical, and doubtful. Because of this, the only way to get followers to fulfill the business mission is by force, creating a poor work environment that isn’t rooted in true leadership.
Authentic leadership is about showing up as your authentic self so you can grow trusting relationships with team members, customers, and clients. However, a Harvard Business Review survey found 58 percent of employees trust a stranger on the street more than they do their own boss. This statistic shows both authenticity and leadership are lacking in most companies.
To avoid this issue from occurring in your business, gain more insight into:
- What authentic leadership is
- How to spot the top traits of authentic leadership
- And ways to incorporate authentic leadership into your leadership style
What is Authentic Leadership?
Authentic leadership theory began developing during the times of ancient Greece. Philosophers stressed one of the keys to life was to “know thyself,” meaning understanding who you are and acting in a manner that doesn’t deviate from this truth. The concept further developed and gained popularity after the publication of Authentic Leadership, written by former Harvard business school professor and business leader Bill George. He explains in a blog post, authentic leaders are identified as people who:
- “Pursue their purpose with passion
- Practice solid values
- Lead with their hearts as well as their heads
- Establish connected relationships
- Demonstrate self-discipline”
The Top Traits of an Authentic Leader
While the theory of authentic leadership is still developing, most agree that there are several common traits authentic leaders share in addition to the ones George identifies.
- Emotional intelligence (EI): Authentic leaders are well-versed in the four domains of EI: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, and relationship management. People with a high emotional quotient (EQ) regulate, control, and understand the feelings of themselves and others. This, in turn, creates stronger bonds within the workplace. It also increases job satisfaction in employees because they feel like their leaders care about them as people.
- Accountability: Those who practice authentic leadership take ownership of their responsibilities. For example, if they take on a challenging goal, they hold themselves accountable for making it happen. If they fail, they also don’t try and shift blame to others. Instead, they communicate with their team what went wrong, what they learned, and how to move forward together.
- Long-term vision: Another component of authentic leadership is remaining committed to a long-term vision. Authentic leaders work on their vision and strategize on how to achieve it rather than being a task-master and checking boxes off a to-do list. This communicated vision creates buy-in from followers—or people who want to make this picture of a better future a reality.
- Humility: One of the best leadership qualities in authentic leaders is humility. Humble people are always willing to listen, learn, and serve others. Without humility, a person appears self-centered, arrogant, and boastful. Together, these are all traits of a toxic boss who creates work cultures employees can’t wait to escape.
- Integrity: Out of all the leadership styles, authentic leadership focuses on being a person who acts with ethics, values, and integrity. Above all, this drives their words, thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
- Kindness and Candor: Authentic leaders are geniunely kind and caring. From their point of view, there’s always a way to excel an outcome through clear and considerate open communication. This might look like providing team members with insightful, helpful feedback that allows them to grow professionally and personally or being fully transparent about what they can or can’t do for a client.
- Transparency: People who practice authentic leadership aren’t regarded as liars. Instead, they are well-known for keeping their word, never hiding the truth from others, and preventing gossip. Instead of indirectly communicating, stretching the truth, or outright lying, they remain open and honest at all times. As such, they would never manipulate someone for their own gain.
How to Become a More Authentic Leader
1. Don’t Try to Be Someone You’re Not
“Be yourself, but always your better self.”Karl G. Maeser
I greatly admire many of the qualities of my former president, Evan Tardy, at Ancient Nutrition. However, if I showed up to work acting identical to Evan, flipped on some party music, and tried to fill the room with his fun-loving energy, it would read as weird and inauthentic. Why? Because that’s not who I am—that’s who Evan is. I am more stoic, strategic, and direct.
Yet, many leaders make the mistake of trying to mimic who they want to be instead of being who they are. Take failed biotech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes for instance. Her obsession with becoming Steve Jobs made her seem phony, which was a good indicator she actually was. She lowered her speaking voice, dressed in black turtlenecks, related her products to Apple’s, and forced her security to drive her around in a similar fashion to Jobs. According to journalist John Carreyrou in Bad Blood, her employees said they “could pinpoint which chapter [of Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs] she was on based on which period of Jobs’ career she was impersonating.” Her career ended when a criminal investigation revealed her business was a fraud.
To avoid an identity crisis and step more into who you are:
- Work on creating a solid foundation for your identity. Spend time each week reflecting on your purpose, character, core values, and convictions.
- Don’t compare yourself to others or try to copy them unnaturally.
- Understand your mission in life was specially designed for you. Trying to be identical to someone else is a disservice to God, yourself, and those around you.
2. Recognize Strengths
“If you spend your life trying to be good at everything, you will never be great at anything.”Tom rath
One of the key components of knowing yourself and practicing authentic leadership is realizing your strengths. This works in conjunction with the first tip because it helps you avoid becoming something you’re not. When you know your talents and gifts, you can grow and develop into the best version of yourself.
Authentic leaders who know their strengths play to them, allowing them to move the needle more efficiently and effectively. Additionally, this prevents people from spending too much time in areas that create friction in their lives, thus increasing productivity.
Think about it this way: Every task you feel stuck in is someone else’s superpower. What might take you four hours of tireless work to complete is another person’s favorite 30-minute task. This is why delegation is a critical leadership skill. It helps create space for leaders to do the work only they can do while giving employees increased responsibilities in their calling.
To get everyone on the team in alignment with their strengths:
- Practice strengths-based leadership. As Jim Collins puts it in Good to Great, the most successful companies place “the right people in the right seats.” Like creating an all-star sports team, you want to hire to position each person in an area they will drive the most impact. As an inspiring leader, you are in more of a coaching role, but you still need to understand your own strengths to hire people who complement your weaknesses.
- Work on weaknesses but don’t dwell on them. While you shouldn’t completely ignore weaknesses, you shouldn’t spend too much time working on them. For example, Elon Musk’s leadership style isn’t perfect, but it works. If he spent all of his time developing an empathetic, democratic nature, he wouldn’t be the genius he is. Use the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule. This would look like growing your strengths 80 percent of the time while focusing on your weaknesses 20 percent of the time.
- Make peace with the fact that you can’t be great at everything. Entrepreneurs are usually high-performers who don’t enjoy failing. Resistance might surface when they realize they aren’t good at something. Instead of fighting to be good at a certain job or task, understand this is a sign you likely need to delegate it out or partner with others through shared leadership.
3. Emulate What Great Leaders Do Well
“Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”Austin Kleon
One of the best ways to become an authentic leader who practices authentic leadership is to observe great leaders and learn from them. Authenticity sees authenticity, meaning as an authentic person, you recognize when someone is setting a good example. Think about those you know who have demonstrated true, authentic leadership during their lives.
Write down the names of these specific leaders and strategize on how you can build a closer relationship with them. Be specific about the areas you want to grow in and how they can help you. While one person might be an excellent open communicator, another might be a great model of people-oriented leadership. Consider the skills you need to grow and also find leaders who can help you grow your strengths.
To think more like an authentic leader:
- Surround yourself with those who practice authentic leadership. Study these people, work alongside them, ask them to mentor you—do what you can to build a great relationship with them.
- Create time in your schedule every day to study great leaders. Read leadership books, listen to business podcasts, watch leadership videos, or join an incredible leader’s mastermind group.
- Pour into other future leaders. Leadership isn’t just knowledge—it’s implementing what you’re studying. Take what you learn and share it with those on your team. In doing so, you become a multiplying leader and create an infinite cycle of great leadership.
4. Grow a Trusting Work Environment
“Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up—it means you trust them when they do screw up.”
Executives who practice authentic leadership develop a work culture grounded in trust. This is because authenticity breeds trust. When you are a genuine, honest, transparent, and kind leader, people naturally grow trust in you. From the way you live and lead, employees understand you wouldn’t speak or act in ways that would intentionally hurt them. Instead, they trust you to guide them in the right direction and keep them safe while they work.
Trust is a two-way street, though. You can’t expect people to trust you if you don’t trust them. If you always act suspicious of others and refuse to stop looking over their shoulder, it creates an environment of distrust. This means you must trust team members to do their job, avoid micromanaging, and believe team members put their best effort into their work. If someone betrays this trust, handle the situation appropriately as outlined in the employee handbook. However, distrusting people without reason is not how authentic leaders guide their teams.
Develop more trust by:
- Becoming a servant leader who puts the needs of others above their own. In doing so, people will organically begin to trust you and feel safe around you.
- Practicing empathetic leadership by imagining the feelings of those around you before you think, act, and speak.
- Providing excellent onboarding and training. It’s easy to trust employees when you know how much upfront work you put into ensuring they succeed.
- Building strong relationships with team members. Meet regularly with each of your direct reports. Engage in small talk, ask them about their hobbies, and get to know them on an appropriate personal level. Additionally, when they experience troubling situations and need support, be kind, caring, and compassionate. When you make people feel loved and valued, relationships and trust grow.
5. Lean Into Vulnerability
“Even when we feel weak and vulnerable, we have to remember that pure vulnerability eventually manifests into authenticity.”Dr. Jacinta Mpalyenkana
Authentic leaders are great communicators who have a strong understanding of their emotions and use them to connect with others. By being vulnerable with their team, they grow trust and strengthen bonds. This might look like communicating failures, giving a heartfelt speech about how much the team means to them, or sharing a personal story about their lives.
While many long-standing beliefs in business culture shun vulnerability, researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown says it is the number one indicator of authentic leadership and bravery. Yet how does a person know when they’re truly being vulnerable? According to Brown, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
To create a more vulnerable work environment:
- Encourage employees to share their thoughts and feelings. When you invite someone to contribute, it lets employees know you value their opinions and emotions.
- Be a great listener. Vulnerable people aren’t just great communicators—they’re also great listeners. By actively listening to your team members, you create a safe place for them to express themselves.
- Speak truthfully. Those who practice authentic leadership aren’t afraid to speak the truth. This doesn’t give them a license to communicate without emotional intelligence, though. Leaders still need to remain professional and kind. However, authentic leaders shed light on the truth, which is often difficult to communicate. This might look like discussing poor work quality or even standing up for what they believe in. Whatever the case, they stand by their morals, ethics, and values, always seeking to live from a place of truth.
- Let people know when and how they’re winning. Openly commend people for their great work. For example, maybe you single out a team member for their excellent performance that resulted in massive improvements in the company’s product or service. Then, tie it back to how their accomplishments fulfill the vision and change customers’ lives.
Authencity Works Like a Magnet
When you are authentic, you attract people to you like a magnet. However, being an authentic leader is easier said than done. As Michael Jordan once said, “Authenticity is about being true to who you are, even when everyone around you wants you to be someone else.”
In today’s modern world, authentic leadership is rare. People are so quick to “do what’s right” or follow the crowd without researching who is dictating that “truth.” Political affiliations aside, the select few who run the media typically influence what we believe, think, and ultimately do.
Yet, authentic leaders like Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Steve Jobs are daring. They’re not afraid to buck the system if it’s the right thing to do. They live from a place of higher truth and let this influence how they live their lives.
Know you have the choice to do the same.
Stepping into authentic leadership is the best place to start.
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