What can we learn from one of the most talked about leadership stories of recent months - the successful presidential campaign of Barack Obama? Many commentators have -remarked that he appears to be a man who is comfortable in his own skin. He writes movingly in his memoir, Dreams from My Father, about his experiences growing up with a white mother and a black father in America and Indonesia. Having a black skin and an African father who he hardly knew, while being raised largely by white grandparents, caused him to reflect deeply on his identity and helped him develop authenticity.
I believe it is no longer enough for business leaders merely to deliver short-term business results, difficult though that can be. They also need to provide long-term meaning for their organisations. To do so, leaders need to be authentic; that is, they need to know themselves and feel confident revealing their core values to their staff and colleagues through their words and behaviour.
Being authentic means generating a sense of organisational purpose that is more inspiring than merely increasing profitability. Purposeful leaders help their staff feel proud of what they do, and motivated to do more. However, being authentic cannot be faked and calls for self-awareness and a settlement to whom one is. In my work as an executive coach I help leaders reflect on their authenticity and explore their purpose. In this article I will expand on what it means to be an authentic leader and outline some practical steps for those who want to explore this key aspect of successful leadership.
Knowing who you are
Authenticity starts with the fact that each and every person is unique. None of us can really be like anyone else even though many of us have tried at some time in our lives. Out of admiration for others and doubts about ourselves we have imitated the behaviour of those we think are successful. However, authenticity starts by accepting the truth that each of us has a unique set of talents, and that we are all better at some aspects of life and leadership than others. While we may choose to try to develop the skills that don't come naturally, it is folly to invest our time and energy in trying to become something we are not. Better to build on the platform of our particular set of talents. It's important to ask yourself what comes easy to you, and what you can do better than almost anyone you know?
For those who find it difficult to identify their unique talents, there are practical ways that help. Ask other people, both close friends who know you well, and casual acquaintances that have little to lose by being frank. They will identify specific qualities that you strongly embody but that you may take for granted. They will also identify the unique way in which you express those qualities and the impact that has on them.
Authentic leaders also need to consider how they use their talents. All leaders are pulled in many different directions as each day brings fresh problems to deal with, and new fires to fight.
Establish your aims
It is vital to know your long-term purpose as a leader. What motivates you to get up every morning? What are you trying to do above and beyond achieving your business -objectives? If you had enough money in the bank so you never had to work again, what would you do?
Because of the age in which we live it is tempting for a leader to see their purpose in purely economic terms. Although we all need financial wellbeing and security, we also need to feel that our lives are meaningful. Which of us would feel satisfied looking back at the end of our lives, knowing that all we did was increase share-holder value?
One of the responsibilities of a leader is to generate meaning for everyone else in the organisation. Employees need their leaders to be purposeful, and they will feel more motivated if they know that they are working to achieve something of lasting importance.
How can a leader clarify their purpose? One way is to ask yourself the time-honoured lottery question: ‘If you won £5m tomorrow, what would you do with the money?' Imagining yourself in the situation of never having to be concerned about money again and having the financial resources to do anything you wanted will help you discover what it is you really want to do with your life.
Your life goals will often be reflected in your core values. A leader's core values are what powers their purpose. Core values are the reason why a leader's purpose is important to them. A purpose that is aligned to core values becomes more powerful and enduring. Leaders may choose not to talk publicly about their values because they may be rooted in their private religious or spiritual beliefs. However, whether spoken or not, they are felt by others.
To identify your core values, ask yourself what are the timeless guiding principles that have influenced you throughout the various stages of your life, whatever you have been doing. When you know the values you hold dear then you are close to identifying those that are core.
Genuine authenticity is felt by others as a sense that the leader is consistent. Such leaders know their core values, know what they are like, and have a purpose that inspires their life and resonates with others.
Why are there not more authentic leaders? One reason is that in today's world there is so little time for individual reflection. Most of us are so busy that we don't have time to stop and think unless forced to do so by a crisis such as redundancy, divorce or a major illness. Even then the loss of identity caused by such events may mean that we throw ourselves straight into the next job or relationship without stopping to learn from what has happened.
Another reason is fear. As motivational speaker and author Marianne Williamson has written, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." By holding ourselves in reserve rather than seeking to fulfil our natural possibility, we can excuse any dissatisfaction with how our life has turned out on the grounds that we didn't really try.
About the author:
John Hannon works in the IT sector as an executive coach, leadership consultant and change manager with interests in change, personal development, psychology and leadership. Find out more at www.newprojections.com