Authenticity is heartbeat of leadership

Often when people think about what it will take to grow into the next level of leadership, they consider what they would need to change about themselves so they can appear to be ready for their next role.

Instead of focusing on growing our skills, often we end up suppressing parts of our personalities so that we can give the impression we are better aligned to an image of what we believe a leader is supposed to be.

But this is an image that is normally inconsistent with our authentic selves.

This can be difficult to maintain, especially in an era where the gap between your personal and professional life is becoming steadily narrower – so much so that it has become common practice for recruiters to check candidates’ online profiles before deciding whether to hire or promote a person. Some people even change their names on social media to avoid having their employers discover who they really are.

We all know that our true characters eventually come out, so why bother trying to pretend in the first place?

It is exhausting to live your life in an inauthentic way. This has led to many of the scandals we see today – when the true characters of leaders in politics and business are finally revealed.

I strongly urge all of us to start applying a more genuine approach towards how we lead.

Authentic leadership is about understanding that, as a leader, you are only able to operate at your best when you are being genuine, not when you are pretending to be someone else. No one wants to be led by a false persona we have created when we are called on to lead.

Authentic leaders are individuals who behave consistently, regardless of the circumstances.

This makes them easier to trust and depend on, because their behaviour is always aligned with their values.

Their passion permeates their environments because they are not pretending. They also build better relationships with their teams because being genuine leads to healthier connections with others.

We do not have to look far to find a good example of an authentic leader.

Advocate Thuli Madonsela, who is leaving office this week as public protector, has made a mark that will be remembered for a long time.

She achieved this by being clear about the values she stood for, and demonstrated these values through her behaviour. Despite the hurdles encountered along the way, she remained passionate and stayed true to her value system.

These kinds of leaders make it easier for others to follow them, and for the nation to depend on them.

At the other end of the scale, you get a character like Donald Trump, the businessman and US Republican Party presidential candidate.

We need to be led by leaders who can inspire others by consistently remaining true to who they authentically are

People are surprised by the scandals that continue to come out about him – even though these events are consistent with the image he has portrayed to the American people. People are shocked because we are used to public figures who suppress parts of their character that are inconsistent with our image of them, or the image they wish to portray.

It is time we accepted that authenticity trumps suppression.

And it would be far worse if Trump pretended to be someone else, only to reveal his real nature one day should he occupy the Oval Office.

Authenticity in leadership can be difficult to grasp for today’s leaders. When I train leaders on this, I often hear them say “What if others are not comfortable with who I really am?”, or “What if I do not fit in?”

By no means am I saying that being consistently authentic comes without difficulty – especially in a world where some still believe this to be an unconventional way of leading.

I just believe that at some point we have to stop conforming to ways of being that are inconsistent with our values and lead to the suppression of our passions.

The same holds true for entrepreneurs: their DNA normally becomes embedded in the organisations that they build.

Even though many disagreed with Steve Jobs’ leadership style, the majority of his success was because he led by being true to who he was. As a result, his legacy has lasted beyond his time.

Entrepreneurs cannot sell a strong and powerful vision effectively if it is inconsistent with their own passions and values.

Imagine how difficult it would be to persuade others to buy products that do not resonate with you. Everyone is building apps these days because it is considered “cool” – not necessarily because the creators are passionate about them.

We need to be led by leaders who can inspire others by consistently remaining true to who they authentically are.

This article was first published in the Business Times on 10 October 2016

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