Put simply, authenticity means being ‘real.’ It means being true to yourself, sharing your thoughts and taking responsibility for your mistakes.
In the professional world, many prescribe to the adage that ‘leadership is acting;’ where managers demonstrate a goal-oriented behaviour at work and leave their true personality at home. However, there is a disadvantage in having this kind of attitude. Your employees may not trust you if they cannot connect with the real you, and they may find it easy to leave your organisation once the opportunity presents itself. As a result, your business loses valuable talent, which is crucial for long-term success. To encourage them to stay, you need to be genuine in how you relate to them and in how you lead.
In an interview of 125 leaders, the Harvard Business Review found that there’s no certain personality that makes an individual an ideal leader. However, all authentic leaders possess self-awareness. That is, they draw from their life experiences in leading others. When they run an organisation, they lead with their values and principles, and have compassion for the people they work with. Rather than focusing on profits or performance targets alone, these leaders are motivated to make a difference in the lives of their colleagues and on the company. For them, business growth and profits will follow.
Take for instance Ann Mulcahy, chairman and CEO of Xerox. When she was handed the reins of the company, it had USD$18 billion in debt and all of its credit lines have been exhausted. Furthermore, Mulcahy did not have any experience in finance, research and development, and manufacturing. What she had at the time was 25 years of experience working in field sales and corporate. Nevertheless, she leveraged the relationships she had built over the course of her career, and rallied executives and employees to make sacrifices to save the company. She herself made trade-offs and even lost two of the company’s executives in the process. In the end, she was able to save Xerox from bankruptcy and pay USD$10 billion of its debt.
Being authentic means application of lessons from your life experiences, values, beliefs, and using them to make a difference. Daniel Vasella, CEO and chairman of Novartis, had a difficult childhood due to the many illnesses he had suffered. From here came his passion to produce pharmaceutical products that would cure various types of diseases, which in turn brought success to his company.
Authentic leadership pays off
Apart from the examples above, there is proof that authentic leadership benefits business. In a 2013 study published at the Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology, it was found that authentic leadership contributes to employee satisfaction, engagement and the willingness to put in extra effort. Authentic leaders are also able to inspire employees to be more creative and innovative in their work. This is especially important in today’s digital world, as your employees influence the public perception of your company through their own digital footprint.
The 2013 study also found that authentic leadership contributes to a flexibility-oriented organisational culture, and a sharing of values and principles between you and your employees. When you have this kind of culture, your company will work hard to respond to the needs of your customers and create long-lasting relationships with them. Your organisation will interact with your customers, consider their feedback and meet their expectations when doing business with them. If something goes wrong, your employees are more likely to suggest a solution, and win back customer loyalty.
When Starbucks experienced massive growth, it lost its grassroots approach to business. The company realised this and worked hard to restore its “neighbourly feel” to its stores, where customers felt listened to. Starbucks launched the mystarbucksidea.com to encourage customers to submit their suggestions on store improvement and to put their needs first. By rebuilding its relationship with its customers, the coffee chain maintained its growth.
Tips on being an authentic leader:
1. Walk the Talk – An authentic leader will play a hands on role when needed and works together with their employees.
2. Be mission-oriented – You can earn the trust of your employees and your customers when your work is focused on the mission and goals of your organisation. To become an authentic leader, you need to set aside self-interests, and work toward fulfilling organisational goals.
3. Create a sense of community – To be an authentic leader, establish relationships with the people that you work with from the top to the newest and youngest employees. Demonstrate empathy, and empower every employee to reach their full potential. As you do, you may be nurturing the future leaders that will further bring your company success.
4. Own up to your mistakes – It is simply inevitable to commit mistakes as you run your company. Rather than blame others, take responsibility and be accountable for your actions. This will show your employees that you are willing to learn and improve. By setting this example, they will also be inspired to improve their work.
5. Take care of yourself – In order to have the right mindset for leadership, you need to take care of yourself too. Sleep well, exercise, have a balanced diet and surround yourself with a supportive network of friends, family and mentors who will encourage you and teach you new perspectives on life. As a leader, you need to nurture your physical, mental and emotional health.
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