Five ways leaders can become more authentic

Karlien Vanderheyden offers advice for managers on how they can be their true selves in the workplace

It’s now widely accepted that leaders need to be empathetic, approachable and authentic, and all the best leaders have these characteristics. Leaders have to have a style that corresponds to their values and personality, and in doing so they generally create more committed and motivated employees and have a culture in which people feel safe to communicate things or try things out. 

This personal authenticity means having a healthy alignment between your internal values and convictions and your external behaviour. Leaders must try to find a style that corresponds to their values and personality, and this style can absolutely change as they learn more about themselves, about other leaders, and about the culture of the organisation, and so on. 

Organisations in which people are authentic generally have more committed and motivated employees and have a culture in which people feel safe to communicate things or try things out. Leaders who are unable to behave authentically often feel exhausted and demotivated. It takes a great deal of energy to behave in a way that doesn’t chime with your values, priorities and style. 

But being completely authentic doesn’t come with its potential downfalls. People often believe that being authentic equates to bluntly expressing their opinion. These pronouncements often come over as direct, full-frontal attacks that can have unintended consequences. It may not have been the leader's intention to hurt someone, but that is what has happened. If this occurs frequently, employees do not feel that they can put themselves in a vulnerable position with the leader, or that they are in a safe environment.

Often, authenticity is seen to be seldom exclusively about the leader and is often about those around us. Some people use ‘this is who I am’ as an excuse for certain behaviour. Authenticity without empathy creates egotism. In fact, true authenticity should lead to a culture of mutual respect. Leaders must be able to establish and maintain relationships. 

We also often believe that people automatically trust leaders when they show authenticity. That is not the case. It is important that leaders have already demonstrated competence, and have presented themselves as credible, before they are fully authentic. Being authentic without already enjoying a certain degree of trust is a risky undertaking and will often backfire. That is what we call ‘idiosyncrasy credit’. So what can we do to improve our authenticity?

Learn from a wide range of role models

If leaders want to grow their authenticity, they must dare to look at other leaders and learn from them. Don’t stop at just one role model, but learn from different people and choose what fits. Leaders won’t find the perfect model in a single colleague or leader, but by combining many different role models. Stepping outside of their comfort zone from time to time will make them a better leader.

Try to become better

Each of us is a work in progress and improves through trial and error. Leaders shouldn’t constantly doubt their skills, talents and achievements. They should let others see what they already have (for example intelligence or social skills) and dare to set learning objectives that motivate them to continuously develop towards greater authenticity.

Keep evaluating

Once leaders have identified their values and the things they find important and less important, it’s a good idea to assess how their behaviour is aligned to these. Leaders should determine for themselves what they do and do not want to do to be an authentic leader. Leaders should remember that their choices may well change at various points in their life. 

Communicate effectively

Communication is important for building trust and showing authenticity. Every question in every conversation is an opportunity to share ideas, visions and values. Leaders must ensure that their message is clear.

It’s more challenging to be authentic in a multicultural environment

The way leaders convince others and the kinds of arguments that are most effective are deeply culturally embedded. Sometimes as a leader in a diverse environment leaders might need to move away from their own authentic self and create a relationship of trust by showing respect for the different cultures.

Karlien Vanderheyden is an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Vlerick Business School