5 ways to develop as an authentic leader

When leaders are genuine, self-aware, and show who they are as people, they inspire loyalty and trust in their employees.

The concept of authentic leadership has been around for many years. Bill George, Harvard professor and former Medtronic CEO, has been credited with creating the theory, which he presented in his 2003 book, Authentic Leadership. He attributed corporate success to leaders who had what he considered essential characteristics of an authentic leader.

This kind of leadership starts with aligning internal values and beliefs with behaviour. It comes from finding your style and your signature way of leading and making decisions that reflect your ethics, values, and personality.

In other words, authentic leaders are those who bring their whole selves to their jobs, participate fully and honestly in the workplace, and build trust amongst their employees. As a bonus, organisations that foster authentic behaviour are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic, and motivated employees who feel safe bringing their authentic selves to work, too, says Carla McCall, CPA, CGMA, managing partner at Massachusetts-based AAFCPAs in the US.

"Authentic leaders are genuine and believable, and if you come across that way, you'll have the trust of your team," McCall said. "And when you have the trust of your team, great things happen."

Building trusting relationships based on a core set of values is key to authentic leadership, added Philipp Belle, ACMA, CGMA, CFO Europe at DPR Construction in Amsterdam. "Your rewards come when you have a great team that delivers results and realises success," he said. "And when individuals find themselves growing, developing, and contributing to success, it's energising."

In addition to McCall and Belle, other experts from around the world told FM what authentic leadership means to them and how leaders can learn strategies for bringing their authentic selves into their workplace.

Get to know yourself. To succeed in becoming an authentic leader, it helps if you know who you are, if you have the ability to articulate your values, and if you understand your motivations and what is important to you.

There are a variety of ways you can get to know yourself better. Personality tests employ a battery of questions and determine your personality type from your answers, McCall said. 

Another effective way to get to know yourself better is to gauge others' reactions to your conversations, comments, directives, and management style, she added.

"As a younger managing partner, other managers told me that nobody wanted to come talk to me because I dominated the conversation and wouldn't let people voice their opinion," she said. "But that's not who I am. I get my joy from helping other people be successful, so I had to shift my management style."

McCall upgraded her communication skills, became a better listener, and embarked on continuous improvement by engaging more with her team.

Practise self-reflection. Reflecting on your management style and your day-to-day interactions with people is a positive step towards becoming a more authentic leader. One way to do this is by taking a few minutes at the end of each day to ask yourself what went well and what didn't, Belle suggested.

Another method for self-reflection is to write down your thoughts. It can be as simple as putting pen to paper, or as detailed as keeping a blog or a journal.

"I just jot on a piece of paper my perceived weaknesses, sources of energy, where I am in my career journey, what I could do differently, and if I'm happy in my job," Belle said.

Carla Wall, ACMA, CGMA, CPA (Australia), is an avid journaler. By reading her own journal entries years later, she can chart her growth over time.

Wall, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, chairs the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants' Australasia Regional Engagement Group. She recalls having early career achievements, including winning the Greater Brisbane Woman in Business of the Year Award in 2018, but despite all her success, she shared that her head was often filled with negative self-talk.

"Journaling helps me get out of my own head and reflect on my thoughts," she said. "I've kept all my journals over the years, and [I] look back and marvel, because they are not a reflection of how I feel now or who I am today. Journaling encourages a space for processing negative thoughts and emotions, and with that brings greater clarity, empathy, [and] problem-solving, and results in powerful creativity."

Seek feedback. Informal conversations open the door to meaningful relationships, and feedback from your team can make you a more effective and authentic manager, said Maryann Tseng, FCMA, CGMA, managing director of Nomura International's Greater China Equity Capital Markets and Syndicate in Hong Kong.

"These informal catch-up meetings create a trusting environment, but it requires patience," she said. "Over time, we begin to gradually get feedback from our employees, and the more they feel comfortable with us, the more they are willing to share."

Helpful feedback doesn't always have to come only from within your organisation. Outside perspectives can be valuable, too.

"Sometimes, it's good to have someone outside your organisation as part of your circle because having people with unbiased perspectives is important," McCall said. "You need people who are going to tell it like it is, because if you have people around you who just want to tell you what they think you want to hear, you are not going to be your best self."

Build meaningful relationships. Fostering relationships with others is a good way to develop your authentic leadership style because it helps you better understand your team on a personal and professional level, Wall said.

"We have a morning huddle every day where we talk about constraints or blocks we have, both at work and at home," she said. "These meetings generate good conversations within our team about how we can support each other, and they help us understand each other's unique way of working."

Wall also schedules one-on-one meetings with her direct reports every week, focusing on each individual. She enquires about their health and asks about the good aspects of their workweek as well as the parts they hated.

"I'll show my vulnerability and share information about myself, too," she said. "I think leaders in the past have been expected to be superhuman individuals who have all the answers, but for me, at the end of the day, I'm still a human being, impacted by emotions, behaviours, and various situations."

Make authenticity contagious. Managers and organisation leaders who bring their true selves to the office foster a sense of belonging amongst staff, leading to a healthier work environment and better employee retention. As a bonus, becoming an authentic leader may lead employees to reveal their authentic selves, too.

"Authenticity will foster a culture where employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work, and they'll be happier," McCall said. "Happy employees lead to happy clients and customers, and a thriving organisation."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at