Authentic leadership is not about revealing weaknesses but finding your own style

While an organisation doesn’t benefit from knowing everything about the boss’s shortcomings, says Tim Segaller, leaders can still be themselves

‘Authentic leadership’ is a relatively new concept in leadership development and people management. It usually describes the value of leaders and managers ‘being themselves’ at work, instead of putting on a front and hiding their weaknesses. The core attitudes espoused here – vulnerability and transparency – do hold some water. But in my experience there are considerable risks when leaders step too far away from their essential role of modelling a high level of self-management and capacity. Putting it more bluntly, an organisation doesn’t always benefit from knowing everything about the boss’s inner demons and shortcomings. 

And so I use the term authentic leadership in a different way. For me, the context here is a common trap both leaders and HR/L&D functions can fall into: believing that success depends on constantly mastering new and complicated management models or skillsets. This is particularly the case during times of complexity or challenge – when our automatic tendency is to assume we don’t know enough already. Of course, there are always useful new methods and models to learn, and HR and L&D are well placed to provide access to these. But often striving hard to reach a ‘corporate’ ideal can lead to stress and exhaustion, or block clear thinking.

It’s far better for HR to facilitate their senior talent in finding their own way to lead others naturally, based on their own distinctive leadership style. This is fundamentally about empowerment – trusting that people have got what it takes, otherwise they wouldn’t have got where they are in the first place. 

The good news is it’s possible to cultivate this approach to leadership, particularly when faced with a tough challenge. There is a simple yet powerful process to identifying the most authentic way to meet whatever workplace challenge is being faced. Here’s a brief taste of it:

Step one: Identify blocks to carrying out one’s role. Bring into conscious awareness any limiting beliefs. Examples are: ‘I’ve got too much on my plate to do anything properly’ or: ‘My team has lost trust in me.’ 

Step two: Reconnect with authentic capacities. Bring to mind past experiences of achievement, where the necessary skills and capacities were clearly demonstrated. People so easily lose touch with these at times of stress. Just a few moments for conscious reflection can make them readily accessible again.

Step three: Draw out next steps. Get pragmatic – list the tasks required to meet a leadership challenge or deliver a project (eg create project team, delegate tasks, etc). Next, identify what the experiences recalled in step two suggest about the best methods for actioning those tasks. The key is to identify the conditions or resources that were in place then, which can be recreated now. Once this is clear, the next steps will become much clearer. 

I’ve seen many times how effective this simple process can be in getting senior leaders and managers from feelings of overwhelm or inertia, to a place of renewed energy and belief – leading to clear and practicable next steps that successfully address the issue at hand.

The beauty of this approach is it allows people to simply be who they are, based on their natural strengths and capacities. This is, in my book, what authenticity is really about. And we all know from experience that when we are like this, we feel good about ourselves. When this happens, we all do our best work, which is why authenticity is both good for your soul and for your business.

Tim Segaller is a leadership and executive coach, resilience trainer and author of The ABC Guide to Mindfulness