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  • Writer's pictureRalph Spangenberg

Great leaders focus on authenticity

When we think of leadership, we usually talk about competency, skill sets, or personality traits. But did you know that in over 1,000 studies conducted by leadership researchers over the past 50 years, none of them could define the ideal leadership style, characteristics, or traits that makes a great leader?

In other words, no one can become a great leader by simply trying to be like someone else. Instead, researchers concluded that great leadership ⎯⎯ the capacity to inspire and empower others ⎯⎯ is about authenticity.

What is authentic leadership?

According to former CEO and Harvard Business School professor Bill Georges in True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, authentic leaders are “genuine people who are true to themselves and to what they believe in. They engender trust and develop genuine connections with others. Because people trust them, they are able to motivate others to high levels of performance. Rather than letting the expectations of other people guide them, they are prepared to be their own person and go their own way…they are more concerned about serving others than…their own success or recognition.”

In other words, authentic leaders are not just passionate for their purpose, but also practice their values consistently. They lead with their hearts, not just their heads. By bringing people together around a shared purpose and empowering them to be authentic as well, value is created for all stakeholders. They know who they are.

So often, we are so worried about showing our competency that we forget the key of leadership is to connect with others, and to show the warmth and human side of who we are.

The need to show our competency often lead most leaders to focus on external strategies rather than building trust. However, the truth is, before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you. To be an effective leader, we must first develop self-awareness on our values, connect to others, then lead.

Achieve multi-million profits

A client of mine worked in London, he relentlessly drove himself to climb the corporate ladder; by 45, he was bank president. On the outside, it looked like he had everything going for him: the perfect house, the gorgeous family, the six-figure income, the country club membership.

But truth was, he felt exhausted, empty, and disconnected. He drove his team as hard as he drove myself, putting in 80-hour work weeks that drained his energy with sleepless nights. He chased after success the way he thought great leaders were supposed to do, but it was not sustainable – he finally ran out of gas and he knew something had to change. He did not see it then, but he was a micro-manager with a top-down approach that led his team to feel resentful and disengaged.

Apparently, this is a common problem in organizations: studies show that only 1/3 of employees are engaged in their work; most employees develop a deep distrust of leaders and are indifferent to the performance and values of the organization they work.

My client decided to turn to coaching, trying a range of strategies that focused on external skills. It took a while before he assumed that if leaders cannot find time to slow down and develop themselves, no amount of external skills training or coaching can result in sustainably.

By the time my client learned to cultivate authentic dialogue, showing warmth and compassion, the results were miraculous. He created a company culture with engaged employees who consistently perform highly. here I developed employees’ competencies and fostered an environment where they felt valued and confident, giving them the free rein to be innovative and strategic in their work. The result was a company that rose from obscurity to national prominence.

Slow down and develop yourself

If I had to sum up the journey to authentic leadership and the approach to coaching, it is this: If leaders cannot find time to slow down and develop themselves, no amount of external skills training or coaching can result in sustainably engaged employees who consistently perform highly.

So how can we develop ourselves into authentic leaders who can empower and motivate others to high levels of performance and create a better company culture? And

do you agree that authenticity is the key to great leadership? What does being authentic mean in your life? And do you notice you are more effective as a leader when you are authentic?

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