"Authentic leadership is about inventing and developing yourself with intention in the trenches of your day-to-day work."
There has been a growing interest and fascination with the concept of authenticity in recent years, particularly within a business and leadership context. Dictionary definitions of authenticity include “real or genuine,” “not copied or false,” and “true and accurate.” In a world where stories of corruption and unethical behaviour make headlines on a regular basis, it seems we all need to be reminded that business success and principle-based leadership are not mutually exclusive outcomes.
Management psychologist and executive coach Karissa Thacker artfully blends the scientific research on authenticity with her own extensive experience coaching corporate executives on how to get important things done through others while being true to themselves. According to Thacker, developing authenticity is not a ‘one and done’ activity. It requires constant and deliberate attention in the trenches of your day-to-day life.
The Big Idea
You Are a CEO!
"Making conscious choices and owning your life is at the heart of the art of authenticity. Thus, the desire to be an authentic leader impacts small, medium and large choices."
Congratulations! You are officially the CEO…of company YOU. Every decision you make (or avoid) impacts your bottom line – the quality of your life. You are exactly where the sum of all the decisions you have made up until this moment – small, medium and large – have led you. Now stop and consider how many decisions actually fall in the ‘large choice’ category. When you look back on your day (or week or month) – how many significant, life changing decisions did you make? Did you decide to relocate? Buy a house? Approve a company merger? Slash your workforce by 20%?
Chances are you didn’t make a lot of big decisions. The majority of our daily and weekly decisions are small and medium-sized choices. Nutritious or fast-food meals. Being active vs. watching T.V. Doing sales calls or reconciling our monthly expenses. Constructively coaching under-performing employees or getting angry and issuing ultimatums. In isolation, none of these small and medium decisions are deal-breakers or makers. Similar to compound interest however, over time these decisions accumulate to the point where you are gaining excess weight or developing the reputation for being a hot-headed, insensitive supervisor.
Authentic leaders (and remember, you are the CEO of YOU!) recognize that every choice, every action creates an outcome. They consciously choose to pursue positive outcomes achieved through proactive, win-win choices and behaviours.
Learn Who You Are
"Becoming more authentic is not possible if you aren’t willing to move outside your comfort zone and do the grappling work."
We hear a lot about the importance of moving outside your comfort zone in order to prime ourselves for personal growth and our organizations for innovation and outrageous success. Thacker points out that people develop a relatively stable, clear idea of who they are and this self-image is generally positive. Very few people think “I am arrogant and condescending to others” and are proud of that reputation. If you want to become more authentic, you have to be willing to examine and reexamine who you are.
Thacker describes three selves that we need to connect with regularly to enhance our authenticity:
- The ideal self – who you want to be, you at your best.
- The real self – who you perceive yourself to be.
- The ‘ought’ self – who you think you ‘ought’ to be according to other people or cultural norms.
Sometimes this shifts depending on your context – expectations at work are different from the ones at home and different again when you are with your friends or out at a public event. Reflecting on who you are in each scenario can be very insightful. And can help shape the choices you make. So, the next time you are facing a decision, ask yourself which one of your selves is pulling rank. How might you unleash your ideal self and let go of the ‘ought’ self?
Hold Curious Conversations
"Balanced processing is the skill of blending your thought process with the thought processes of others without a bias towards your view."
Another way to move outside your comfort zone and expose yourself to different perspectives is to hold curious conversations. Curious conversations focus on understanding how other people think about issues, challenges and topics of interest. Blockbuster Hollywood producer Brian Glazer (A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Apollo 13) regularly meets with people who interest him simply to broaden his worldview. In research terms, this is called balanced processing.
Let’s assess how well you incorporate balanced processing into your decision-making process. Answer the following questions:
- Do you seek the opinions of others before making up your mind?
- Do you listen to the ideas of people who disagree with you and alter your view?
- Do you take the time to listen carefully to the ideas of others before making a decision?
For any question you answered YES to, go back and identify three recent examples to support your claim. Be specific about who you spoke to, what you discussed, and how their opinions impacted your final decision. If you find it difficult to identify specific situations, or if you answered NO, you will probably benefit from holding more curious conversations.
Not sure how to initiate a curious conversation? Here are three things you can do to engage others:
- Practice saying “I don’t know” (even when you think you do know) and ask people to tell you what they think or how they would approach the situation. Really probe to understand their perspectives, the criteria that influenced them and why they think the way they do.
- Ask multiple people to build a case against your idea or decision – the old ‘devil’s advocate’ strategy.
- Simply ask, “Tell me what you think about _________?” (insert topic of your choice).
Getting the conversation going is important. Parking your ego and continuing to ask questions that deepen your understanding of another person’s perspective instead of adding your own two cents or judging their ideas is even more important. And a lot more difficult than you think! Persevere. It’s worth it!
Thacker has written a thoughtful and compelling book on the principles, practices and tools that will help people be more authentic in their interactions with others. She unpacks the extensive research conducted on the topic and illustrates what authenticity looks like in real life situations. It’s almost like you are personally observing her client sessions through a one-way mirror.
In a way, Thacker is actively coaching us throughout the book. She closes each chapter with “workouts” – activities and reflections that help readers dig deeper into their own life experiences to discover their true, authentic selves. Anyone can read a book on authenticity. That’s a small and easy decision. The bigger questions, the larger decisions are “Will you act on what you have learned? Will you commit to doing the grappling work necessary to become more authentic in word and deed?” The choice is yours.