Leadership Lessons: Authentic Leadership

GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. -- "Extroverts make the best leaders" -- words spoken by an instructor to my cadet class in officer training. An introvert myself, I did not understand exactly what my instructor was trying to teach us. Was he saying that introverts had no hope of being the "best leaders," or was he insinuating that introverts should pretend to be extroverted? How could I hide something that was at the core of who I am?

Although maybe not as forthright as my instructor, our society does propagate a bias that values extroverted qualities in general. Introversion is mostly regarded as a second-class personality. Between society, friends, family, coworkers, supervisors, and even instructors, we will be pressured in many different directions throughout our lives. Where we fall on the extrovert/introvert spectrum is just one example of how we might fall in or out of favor, but it is important that we always stay true to who we are. Being true to ourselves sets the foundation for true leadership. From this notion, I pose a conjecture that leadership, the kind that leaves a long-lasting and valuable effect on people, is not the result of any particular style--it is the result of authenticity.

Being yourself sounds easy but, in the shuffle of things, it can sometimes be a tough task. Some people feel they need to put on a tough-guy persona for fear of appearing weak. Others might indulge in cheap flattery to win favorability, while still others might pretend to be a gregarious extrovert to strengthen their image. Many times, however, these actions are taken at the expense of your team. When you are not yourself, your team, the people that know you, lose respect for you. Leaders need to stand strong against the changing environment and the pressures it will produce. If leaders are truly present for the sake of service, there would be no need to fake anything, and transparency would be upheld.

Authentic leaders actually want to be leaders. They don't just fake a persona for recognition or to gain the spotlight. They have heart in what they do and are genuinely more concerned with empowering their people than having power. The core of authentic leadership is about using truth and integrity to capture the trust of people and to encourage open dialogue. Open dialogue is crucial to understanding the full reality in any given situation. That is why it is so important.  It has everything to do with strong character and values; it has little to do with style.

Being authentic proves that you have the ability to stand on your own. It is a powerful way to prove your courage. It gives people the understanding of where you stand and gives them the confidence to follow you. What good is a leader that conforms?  If we conform, we are not leading!

Authentic leaders demand excellence, not perfection, because their understanding is very realistic. They are human, they know it, and are not afraid to show it. What good is it, as we develop our teams, to put perfection on a pedestal? Those seeking perfection are destined to fail. Furthermore, exposing your weaknesses and your humanity encourages others to be authentic too. 

Most literature on leadership will formulate lists of characteristics that they claim are essential for success. These lists are describing styles of leadership which, to at least one person, were probably useful. There are many styles of leadership, however, and we all have one. But there is only one type of authentic leadership, and that is yours. Being authentic begins with your purpose, values, and character. Our style will be built over time, but if we lose touch with our authenticity, it will mean nothing.

Leadership begins and ends with authenticity. Styles of leadership are effective but being authentic is most important. Whether you lead with a quiet confidence or booming personality, it does not matter. Every personality and style will have its times of falling in and out of favor, but our authenticity should be unwavering. My instructor had good intentions. He demanded excellence from his students and taught us many great lessons. But, even though I respected him and wanted to impress him, I chose to stay true to who I really am. 

What do you think about authentic leadership? Do you ever fall prey to pressures tempting you to be unauthentic? Is it acceptable to give in?