How to spot—and become—an 'authentic leader'

It's about more than being rigid, expert says

Authentic leaders have a sense of purpose and are committed to their core values, but they are also frequently misunderstood, Bill George writes in LinkedIn "Pulse."

George, a professor at Harvard Business School and the former CEO of Medtronic, says authentic leaders share five qualities:

  • Understanding their purpose;
  • Practicing solid values;
  • Leading with heart;
  • Establishing connected relationships; and
  • Demonstrating self-discipline.

Since George defined "authentic leadership" in his 2003 book of the same name, "authenticity has become the gold standard of leadership," he says. But as its popularity has grown, authentic leadership has also come under scrutiny.

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"Several authors have recently challenged the value of being authentic, claiming it is an excuse for being locked into a rigid view of one's leadership, being rude and insensitive, refusing to change, or not adapting to one's style to the situation," George explains.

True authentic leadership
But George says these critics miss what it means to truly be an authentic leader, and shares six common misconceptions.

Character, not style, is key to authentic leadership. "Style is the outward manifestation of one's authentic leadership, not one's inner self," George writes. However, authentic leaders frequently change their style depending on their context, moving from mentor to manager as the situation demands.

You cannot fake authentic leadership. "People sense very quickly who is authentic and who is not," George warns. Authentic leaders earn the trust of their teams by making smart decisions and being true to themselves over the long term.

Authentic leaders grow. "Becoming authentic is a developmental state that enables leaders to progress through multiple roles, as they learn and grow from their experiences," George explains. They don't have a "rigid" view of leadership skills.

Authentic leaders react to the emotions of others. So-called emotional intelligence is an essential tool of authentic leaders. They "self-[monitor], understand how they are being perceived, and use [emotional intelligence] to communicate effectively," George writes.

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Authentic leaders are not perfect—and they know it. While they are not always humble or modest, authentic leaders can admit when they make a mistake and ask for help.

Authentic leaders care about what other people need. Authenticity is not an excuse for being a jerk, George says. True authentic leaders find a way to overcome personal experiences that make it hard for them to manage their anger. "That's why exploring who they are and getting honest feedback from their colleagues are essential elements of becoming authentic leaders," George writes (George, "Pulse," LinkedIn, 11/16).

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