Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness. Shakti Gawain
The word “authentic” emerges as a very popular term in various fields in the 21st century. In 2002, the same year that Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness was published, the field of management and leadership was rocked by the best-seller Authentic Leadership written by Bill George, a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School.
What is Authentic Leadership?
According to George’s definition in Harvard Business Review, authentic leaders are “good in their skin,” so good they don’t feel a need to impress or please others. They not only inspire those around them, they bring people together around a shared purpose and a common set of values and motivate them to create value for everyone involved.’ In the publication Positive Organizational Scholarship, Luthans and Avolio (2003) define authentic leadership as “a process that draws from both positive psychological capacities and a highly developed organizational context, which results in both greater self-awareness and self-regulated positive behaviors on the part of leaders and associates, fostering positive self-development “ (p. 243, italics mine).
The concept of authenticity originated back in the ancient Greeks, as captured by their timeless admonition to “be true to oneself.” In the field of positive psychology, authenticity is defined as “owning one’s personal experiences, be they thoughts, emotions, needs, preferences, or beliefs, processes captured by the injunction to know oneself” and “behaving in accordance with the true self” (Harter, 2002, p. 382). So the logic is simple: we can not imitate other people’s leadership. We can’t be another Jack Welch or Bill Gates by just doing what they did (we can learn from their experiences for sure), because what successful leaders have in common are not styles and images, but their substance and integrity. We have to then learn to be our own kind of leaders.
Here is a way of conceptualizing Bill George’s idea of authentic leadership into three main components:
- Self-Awareness – Understand YOURSELF, not just your organization
Many leaders put effort into analyzing their organizations and developing strategies for them. They may know everything about the services or products from the organization, but then they may not know much about themselves – lack of self-awareness. One’s real self is the identity that can be found at one’s absolute core, and is not defined by one’s job, function, role or position. So how can one understand his/her real self? According to Kernis (2003), understanding one’s real self involves showing an understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and the multifaceted nature of the self. This includes gaining insights into the self through exposure to others, and being aware of one’s impact on other people. Knowing the authentic self requires an individual to be honest and have the courage to open up and examine one’s life story and experiences, both good and bad. As leaders do so, they become more humane. (See also Aren Cohen’s Self-Awareness: The PopEye Strength.)
- Develop and Practice Your Solid Values – not just the organization’s or someone else’s
The values of authentic leaders are shaped by personal beliefs and convictions developed through life experience, development, and introspection. The significance of your values does not lie in how you present them, but how you practice them, particularly under pressure. Leadership principles are values translated into actions. People can sense whether leaders behave according to the values they present to others. If not, the trust balloon is wrecked, because employees soon become cynical when leaders behave in ways inconsistent with their values. The trust balloon is dramatically hard to rebuild. Use your life stories and beliefs to shape the values by which you lead, and avoid your own narcissistic impulses.
- Lead with your heart – not just with your head
Leaders must transmit values and purposes to their subordinates using empathy, compassion, passion and courage. “Big-hearted” leaders are open, willing to share themselves fully with team members, and are genuinely interested in others. The respect that is essential to leadership is reciprocal. You won’t be able to get others’ respect if you do not listen with concern and respect to them. Great leaders cited by Bill George like Marilyn Carlson Nelson from Carlson, A. G. Lafley from P&G, and Howard Schultz from Starbucks share the capacity to inspire and empower others around a shared mission or purpose with their REAL empathy and concern. DO NOT let your heart and real self be devoured by your huge desk and high chair at office!
How does authenticity help with happiness and performance?
Organizational level: I strongly believe that leadership is vital for fully-functioning and optimized communities, business enterprises, or even governments. As a matter of course, an authentic approach to leading is shown to be related to positive outcomes in the human enterprise. These positive outcomes include higher levels of self-esteem, psychological well-being, enhanced feelings of friendliness, and elevated performance (Grandey, Fiske, Mattila, Jansen, & Sideman, 2005). As suggested by Ryan and Deci (2001), higher levels of employee well-being have positive impact on performance. Leaders who know and act based upon their true authentic values and strengths can lead and help others to do the same, thus bring about higher levels of well-being and performance in the organization.
Individual level: The pleasure of leading people to achieve a worthy goal is significant to authentic leaders, who are not simply trying to get people to follow them. Authentic leaders focus on their purpose rather than their ego. George once quoted what Peter Drucker said, “Leadership is not rank or privileges, titles or money. Leadership is responsibility.” The immense intrinsic satisfaction is a special reward to leaders who have empowered and developed others and thus made the world a better place.
I am going to end this article with a personal conversation I had with Professor Lee Ou Fan, one of the scholars of humanities that I respect most. At the end of his encouraging and heart-warming email last week, he gave me this advice: Be your own person, form your own opinions, and shape your own life.
Grandey, A. A., Fiske, G. M., Mattila, A. S., Jansen, K .J., & Sideman, L. A. 2005. Is “service with a smile” enough? Authenticity of positive displays during service encounters. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 96: 38-55.
Harter, S. (2002). Authenticity. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 382-394). London: Oxford University Press.
Kernis, M. H. 2003. Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14: 1-26.
Luthans, F., & Avolio, B. J. (2003). Authentic leadership: A positive developmental approach. In K. S. Cameron, J. E. Dutton, & R. E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship (pp. 241–261). San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. 2001. On happiness and human potential: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well being. Annual Review of Psychology, 52: 141-166.