by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development
Lead International USA
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“Authentic” is one of the emerging descriptors for effective leadership. On the surface it sounds like one of the easier competencies to pursue. Popular concepts like “charisma” and “dynamic” suggest a particular personality type that only a few are born with. “Authentic” essentially means being true to yourself which is something everyone can be. In Bill George’s True North , a follow up to his best selling Authentic Leadership, he provides both a framework for getting there and a book full of compelling examples.

Bill George, oversaw the dramatic rise of Medtronics ($1.1 billion to $60 billion in revenue) before retiring and now teaches leadership at Harvard Business School. In True North, George writes very little about his own experiences at the helm (covered in more detail in the first book), and instead has researched over 125 leaders who qualify as “authentic.”

Just about every vignette or example highlights a successful individual who leads a significant organization. This is not a book about the leader next door but rather CEOs and executives from household name companies and not for profit organizations. While many of these leaders came from modest backgrounds, for the most part, they seem to have graduated from famous universities and used their talent and drive to have it all. Career paths that led to the top, significant and satisfying relationships and meaningful contributions to society all linked to their ability to discover and express their authenticity.

However, George does not paint this as a pain free process. In fact, the path to authenticity usually involved a major career disappointment, health issues, relationship failures, or all of the above. George calls these events “crucibles” and they appear to play an indispensable role in the process. Despite the fact that it would appear intuitive for us to pursue our natural selves, the messages of the world and the marketplace all seem designed to draw us away from that path. George uses labels like “imposter,” “rationalizer,” and “glory seeker” to capture the lies that prevent authenticity.

The movement towards authenticity requires self awareness, values and principles, motivations, a support team, and an integrated life. This results in a leadership style characterized by purpose, values, heart, relationships and self discipline. George’s framework and terminology don’t sound too different from most of the leadership books on the market today. What gives the book a certain, well, authenticity, is the honest voice of the leaders’ stories.   Somewhere in the process of getting ahead and getting to the top, they were blessed to have an opportunity to hit the pause button and ask, “why am I doing this?”

Interestingly, for some the answer meant moving to a less powerful position, while for other it simply reaffirmed their trajectory but now they had the motivation to continue the flight. Being Authentic is obviously not a cookie cutter formula leading to the same conclusion for everyone. It does cause an aligning process between passion and purpose.

One of the more insightful components of the model, “building your support team,” is frequently overlooked in the practical application of leadership. In many situations, leaders feel the need to appear invulnerable or, at least, not susceptible to all the doubts and questions that plague mere followers. Sometimes it is just uncomfortable to share your failures and shortcomings with others. But a lot of times, it just doesn’t get on the priority list. Having individuals in your life who can give you honest feedback, provide encouragement, and hold you accountability sounds like a no brainer. And yet the busyness of leading leads to a “doing” mindset not a “reflective” one.

George advocates starting with at least one person with whom you can be completely vulnerable and honest. This is someone who will always tell you the truth. Family members, mentors, and coaches form the second line of defense. Again, a similar quality of transparency and honesty is required but in some cases they may speak more into specific areas of your leadership challenge. Finally, George suggests having a personal support team of individuals who are on a similar journey and who meet regularly to share what they are learning and encourage one another. For over 30 years, George has met every Wednesday morning with a group of eight men for discussions that he calls, “open, probing, and profound.”

Although George’s study group all qualified as high fliers, I believe that authentic is not limited to those who graduate from Ivy League schools and experience life as fast trackers. The framework for authentic leadership that George has set forth applies to a lot of people I know. They may not operate on a large stage, but they have consistently made choices that reflect their values and passions and the result is a truly integrated life with a very visible moral compass.

The challenges facing young leaders these days definitely require authenticity. Some will make it all the way to the top of their organizations as influential leaders. But all of us should remember that being authentic enables everyone to lead lives of purpose and contribute to great causes wherever they find themselves on the organizational chart. We need organizations full of authentic individuals not just led by an authentic leader.

©2015 Lead International