It is both a privilege and a great responsibility to be a leader. The responsibility being to lead with wisdom, compassion, and courageous authenticity for the benefit of those we lead, and for all humanity.
Our organisations, our government, our communities, our businesses all need a new kind of leadership: Authentic leadership.
Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It’s a practice – a conscious choice for how we want to live and lead. A collection of choices we have to make every day. It’s the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we truly are.
In today’s business environment of intense competition, increasing demands, competing priorities, and more complex stakeholder relationships, how we lead as individuals and behave as a group of leaders is critical. Our collective success depends upon it.
A new kind of leadership
Today’s leadership is not about ‘command and control’, and it is not about authority or power. Today, leadership is the ability to inspire and influence others. Authentic leadership is relating to and inspiring others in an authentic, courageous, and high-integrity manner. Your leadership becomes an expression of your true self. Your behaviours match your values and others trust that you can be counted on to keep your word, meet your commitments, deal with them honestly and fairly, and remain true to your purpose.
The essence of being an authentic leader is being aware of yourself and how you interact with the world. Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviours to be attuned to their audiences, and to enrol their colleagues and teammates. They do so because they are self-aware and sensitive to the impact their words and actions have on others.
To be an authentic leader you must know yourself – how you think, feel, and behave and your impact on others. And you must also have an appreciation of how others think, feel, and behave.
Yet leading authentically is no small thing. Truly being ourselves as a leader is one of the most challenging and courageous endeavours we’ll undertake in our lives.
Cultivating authentic leadership
Research and neuroscience show that mindfulness is a foundational skill underpinning inner growth factors: self-awareness, self-management, and emotional skills.
Mindfulness for self-awareness is the practice of self-observation without judgment with a focus on your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Mindfulness enables us to clear our mind of clutter and focus on what is important. It empowers us to slow down and create the space to lead authentically. This allows us to self-regulate our emotions and responses.
It also involves cultivating a more wise and skillful relationship with ourselves, getting to know how to work with our own minds, emotions, bodies, and hearts.
Self-compassion is the quality of the relationship we have with ourselves. And what could be more important? Compassion for ourselves is really no different from having compassion for others. Although it is more challenging.
Self-compassion means being our own best friend. From self-compassion we self-motivate from an entirely different place of wanting the best for ourselves, rather than feeling we have to fix ourselves.
Whenever our inner critic or a harsh self-approach is used we activate our ‘threat system’ and elevate our stress hormones. When threat has a hold on us, we can’t learn from, or engage with, the kernel of truth that may be there in the situation to serve us.
Self-compassion on the other hand, triggers our ‘sooth system’. This allows us to hold the truth without attacking ourselves, to remain calm and connected.
Here’s a short list of what research has shown are the outcomes from practising self-compassion:
- less anxiety, depression, stress, rumination
- less perfectionism and control issues
- more resilience, happiness, optimism, and gratitude
- more life satisfaction, wisdom, and curiosity
3. Compassionate self-awareness
Compassionate self-awareness is having an intellectual, emotional, and physical awareness of yourself that you relate to with compassion. Through the teaching and practice of mindfulness and self-compassion, compassionate self-awareness arises.
Research from psychologist Daniel Goleman shows that self-awareness is crucial for all levels of success. As he outlines in Emotional Intelligence, above an IQ of 120, EQ (Emotional Intelligence) becomes the more important predictor of successful leaders. Developing and deepening self-awareness is the first step to improve and grow your EQ.
Compassionate self-awareness enables us to make more insightful and sharper decisions and ‘course correct’ as we go. It facilitates an improved, authentic relationship with ourselves and with others. It also helps us tailor our style to our audiences, and recognise the imperatives of the situation, and readiness of our teammates to accept different approaches.
At other times we need to be inspiring coaches, and consensus builders. These flexible styles aren’t inauthentic if they come from a genuinely authentic place. In this sense our leadership style becomes the outward manifestation of our authenticity. As we develop greater self-awareness, we become more skilful in adapting our style, without compromising the character of our authentic self.
Gaining wisdom from an experience requires reflection, which requires a type of introspection that goes beyond merely thinking, talking, or complaining about our experiences. It’s an effort to understand how the events of our life shape how we see the world, others, and ourselves.
Self-reflection ensures the urgent does not take precedence over the important in our lives. As leaders we regularly examine how we are living and leading and engaging with the world around us. In this way self-reflection is essential for any authentic leader. It’s what links our performance to our potential.
Self-care is often looked down upon in the business world as unnecessary at best and lazy at worst. Unfortunately, this attitude can be deeply institutionalised, and many of us can be hesitant to prioritise ourselves.
While there’s certainly value in the search for ‘work-life balance,’ what is more fruitful is finding a healthy sense of integration among the different facets of our lives. But how do we find this sense of integration, particularly when work stress seems to creep home with us no matter what? The answer: self-care and boundaries.
Self-care involves actively setting intentions and priorities for yourself. This includes being honest with yourself and others about your needs, desires, fears, and dreams. From this place, we can be authentic leaders, engaged partners and parents, and productive members of any team.
Self-care has many manifestations. Learning how to care for ourselves emotionally, mentally, financially, and physically. And it’s not easy! We’re actually wired, particularly under stress, to ‘tend and befriend’, to focus on other people’s needs and ignore our own. It’s important to learn how to make self-care a priority and put in place the intentions and boundaries necessary to ensure sustainable self-care.
6. Mindful relating
Relationships can be a source of our greatest joy and our greatest pain, this is so in life and in work. Many of our habitual relational patterns, the ones that cause us challenges as adults, were laid down in our early years, as templates literally wiring how our brains work. Being human means we’re hardwired to replay the past, especially when our past includes emotional pain or disappointment.
Being an authentic leader means we also want authentic relationships, not a replay of the past.
To practise authentic leadership it’s important we learn:
- How to identify and bring awareness to our relational triggers – those moments when our reactions to another flare up strongly – and learn a self-regulation process for working with these triggers.
- A mindful relating process that allows us to respond from the present rather than react from the past or from habit.
- How to listen mindfully. Encouraging others to feel heard and to speak more openly and honestly. This makes our team feel appreciated, which research indicates makes them happier, and more productive and effective at work. Becoming more aware of specific obstacles that obstruct your mindful listening, will give you more power and choice to change.
More than ever, we need empathic and compassionate leaders. Recent studies have shown that contrary to some beliefs, empathic and compassionate leaders are strong and courageous. They promote trust and collaboration, well-being in others, and simultaneously produce positive results.
7. Values, purpose and vision
Discovering or re-engaging with our values and sense of purpose, is a powerful motivator and helps us to inspire others. Purpose transcends ego or, conversely, a lack of confidence. Authentic leaders lead through purpose and values.
Becoming clear on our core values and vision helps to strengthen our leadership integrity and leads to better decisions. A driving purpose and vision become a motivation to assume greater risks and take on roles that might otherwise be uncomfortable. It can energise you to be more resilient and find more meaning in your work.
Becoming clearer about how you want to show up as a leader – your character strengths, your authentic leadership vision, and how you want to live your life – creates alignment and congruence from within.
It is both a privilege and a responsibility to be a leader. Whether we are leading governments, communities, businesses, or leading our own lives and families; we need to be the authentic leaders the world needs now.
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