What Does Authentic Leadership Mean?

“I don’t feel I can be authentic at work”. 

I hear this from so many of the powerful women leaders I coach.  It breaks my heart that they hold back and diminish their power by failing to speak their truth. Why?  FEAR.  And the assumption they need to fit in or else….

And this in organisations which purport to espouse authentic leadership. Indeed, the success of the organisation increasingly depends on enlightened and authentic leadership.


 What is Authentic Leadership? 

And how do women leaders embrace it in a work environment that often seems anathema to their authenticity and leadership? 

This is not the standard textbook review of authentic leadership. You can find that elsewhere. Here, let’s explore the impact the workplace culture has on a woman’s leadership style, and  

What prevents her from leading authentically?

The workplace culture is extremely powerful. Like all cultures, it needs our cooperation in order to survive and does that with social norms that control our behaviour. This is essential, or we’d constantly live and work in chaos. 

 However, to speak out against those norms — often what’s needed to act and speak authentically in such an environment — takes courage. It’s a lot easier to obey the norms and fit in. Yet, each time a woman leader fits in, rather than speaks her truth, she loses a little more integrity, a little more of her true self and her power.

Authentic leadership takes a lot of courage. It requires us to be self-aware, to know our strengths and weaknesses, and be OK that others know them too.  To be vulnerable and express our emotions. To encourage open communication amongst team members. And to live and lead by the values that matter most to us.  Think and act for the long term. Great ideal. Hard to deliver in practice.  Why?

Lack of trust

Because it’s risky to be vulnerable if there is little trust in a workplace where any mistake or weakness could be used against you. It’s not easy to express your emotions when, as a woman, you are often criticised for being too emotional. So, you curb those emotions, and a little bit more of you dies every time you do.

To lead by your values is hard. Just knowing what they are, and what behaviours express those values — and which do not — is not easy to work out.  Especially if demands are made of you from early morning to late at night with little respite. It’s even more difficult to lead from those values when the easiest route or decision goes against them.

And long term? Most organisations are fixated on their performance this next quarter.   So long term is decidedly out of alignment with that mentality.

So there’s lots of ‘stuff’ in the workplace environment that stacks up against you and your ability to be a successful leader.  Constraints. How do you deal with them? And reach a point where you can safely practice authentic leadership?

Understand What’s Really Holding You Back

Bringing awareness to the situation is an essential first step. So, ask yourself:

When and where exactly do you find it hard to express yourself authentically?

  • In certain meetings? Face to face? In remote ‘teams’? When you suspect another’s hidden agenda? 
  • With difficult people? Who are they? And in what way are they difficult? How does your behaviour trigger or exacerbate the situation? In any relationship, both parties are responsible.
  • The long hours? Always on culture? Unreasonable demands on your time and energy? Blurred boundaries between home and work?
  • Only at certain times? Most of the time? 

What are you doing that might be exacerbating the situation? 

  • What are others doing? Your team members, direct reports, colleagues? 
  • How does their behaviour and yours prevent you from speaking your truth? 

Are there any skills or abilities that you don’t have and need to navigate the workplace culture? If so, acquire them.

Whilst all these questions are important, indeed essential, to ask and answer, they only hint at

The Big Domino

The Big Domino is the one thing, that if you sorted it, would ensure that pretty much everything else fell into place — or proved to be irrelevant. So what is it?

I believe it lies in knowing and living by your values and beliefs.  Chances are, these differ from those of the organisation, those of your colleagues.

Your values are your north star, your guide to behaving with integrity. Not staying quiet when you know you need to speak up. This is often where the biggest clashes occur and why you feel unable to lead authentically. So, please, get really clear on your values at work. 

What really, truly matters to you?  Make a list. And from that list identify the one or two key values that you choose to live by at work. They are your touchstone. If you can always — or mostly — stay true to these, you will be leading with integrity.  Being that authentic and successful leader you know yourself to be.

Do that same exercise with your team.  Identify at most two key values that you as a team agree to work by. To make sure everyone understands the same thing by those values, agree what behaviours express those values, and which do not. Give yourself and your team permission to call out anyone who fails to behave according to those agreed values. Develop the trust here, and you’ll soon recognise a positive shift in team performance. And, who knows? That island of trust may well extend out to other teams, colleagues, peers, senior management. Simply because you cared to transform your little patch of the world for the better.

And if you’d like support — in identifying your values, in developing a level of trust in your team and agreeing a set of team values, book a short no obligation call. Let’s get you fully in your power, and your team at peak performance. 

Leave a Reply