What is it?
In his popular book Authentic Leadership, Bill George defines the concept as comprising five dimensions: understanding your purpose, practising solid values, leading with your heart, establishing connected relationships and demonstrating self-discipline. In short, being an authentic leader is about being true to yourself and your values - not presenting a false corporate image or trying to emulate the leadership style or characteristics of others.
"The one essential quality you must have to lead is to be your own person, authentic in every regard," says Bill George. "The best leaders are autonomous and highly independent."
Why is it important?
The pillars of authentic leadership are especially pertinent in these days of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and employer brand. Employees and customers want to see a consistency of message and actions that demand more of leaders than merely satisfying the board and improving the bottom line. Authentic leadership can exist at all levels - not just the boardroom. It cannot be taught on a training course but can be developed as long as you have the correct motivation.
Where do I start?
At the core of authentic leadership is having a deep understanding of your own purpose or mission, and being passionate about it. This sense of purpose should be uniquely your own and provide the motivation for your desire to lead - not for selfish reasons such as prestige, power or money. If you have not been inspired to lead in this way, now might be an appropriate time to switch jobs, fields or companies.
Integrity and strong values are generally heralded as essential traits of good leaders, but you must also be able to manage yourself to demonstrate that you are worthy of respect and so that your values remain consistent once they are translated into actions. You must also act as a role model for employees and be trustworthy. Being consistent in word and deed - or "congruent"- is essential, says Natalie Carolan, a consultant in the business psychology team at organisation behaviour specialists ER Consultants. "This operates at all levels, not just being congruent internally within the organisation but with everyone - ie customers."
Courage and authenticity are intrinsically linked, so you need to be daring and honest, and able to speak out to right wrongs, admit to personal weaknesses and own up to your mistakes. You must also face challenges and unfamiliar situations head on and have the ability to make tough decisions.
"Authentic leaders are prepared to ask difficult questions, really listen to the answers and act accordingly," says Carolan. "This means being able to go far outside your comfort zone."
Build lasting relationships
Recognise that the best teams include a balance of people with varying styles and skillsets. Build lasting and meaningful relationships and empower employees to make a difference, rather than simply delegating tasks to them. Do not detach yourself from your people; be open and let them know they can approach you at any time. Show empathy and compassion. Such actions will build trust and commitment on both sides.
Where can I get more info?
Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value, Bill George, Pfeiffer Wiley, £12.99, ISBN 0787795281
Leading Out Loud: Inspiring Change through Authentic Communication, Terry Pearce, Jossey Bass Wiley, £19.99, ISBN 0787963976
Awakening the Leader Within: A Journey to Authenticity and Purpose, Kevin Cashman, Jack Forem, John Wiley & Sons Inc, £17.50, ISBN 0471273198
If you only do five things...
1. Understand your purpose
2. Be passionate
3. Acknowledge personal weaknesses and own up to mistakes
4. Engage staff and give them the opportunity to succeed
5. Act as a role model and demonstrate self-discipline in everything you do
Expert's view: Natalie Carolan on being an authentic leader
Natalie Carolan is a consultant in the business psychology team at organisation behaviour specialists ER Consultants
Can you provide an example of authentic leadership in action?
Some people may think they are being authentic by being open about using labour in India, for example. But a real authentic leader would check what the conditions were like, such as by sending people out there to ensure the conditions meet ethical requirements. This is quite different from a tick-box exercise as the motivation goes beyond fear of adverse publicity in the newspapers and stems from a genuine desire to endorse such conditions.
What would you define as the key characteristics?
In terms of the key skills and traits, there is a great deal of overlap with the competencies of Daniel Goleman's research on emotional intelligence. These include: self-awareness; self-confidence - belief in oneself; the ability to take risks and/or make tough decisions; empathy - an ability not only to read people but also political and social currents; trustworthiness; contentiousness and adaptability.
What advice would you offer?
Without the right mindset, any attempts to develop authentic leadership will fail. The effort and time that needs to be invested by the leader (and to a certain extent the followers as well), requires a real desire to move towards a more authentic approach. There needs to be recognition at an individual level that it will make a genuine difference to one's leadership and ultimately benefit the business. Leaders must be truly motivated for it to work.
What is often overlooked?
Because there is an emotional component to authentic leadership, any development must target the limbic system - the emotional part of the brain. This means that training is not sufficient for development. Developing authentic leadership is about learning how to think and behave differently. This means 'unlearning' old patterns and relearning new ones, which requires motivation, time and energy in the form of extensive practice and feedback. This can come from on-the-job feedback from a mentor and work colleagues as well as a coaching relationship.