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How to be an authentic leader?

It’s a great question and if you dare to put it into Google, you’ll soon find yourself falling into wormhole of nightmare proportions! Why? Well because there are so many great leaders that kind of don’t fit the norm and so to distil it into a single recipe can be pretty hard.

Most websites will say there are several characteristics around leadership that when applied churn out a good leader and whilst there is loads of theory out there it can be really difficult to understand how this translates into day to day activities.

Over the next few weeks, we thought it would be useful to use some specific examples of how you can use and embed these qualities into your daily life as a leader, so you can create a practical action plan that fits your leadership style.

So, let’s start with… being authentic.

What does that even mean? Well, the Cambridge dictionary definition says:

Authentic adjective

If something is authentic, it is real, true, or what people say it is

Ok, so if someone else says I’m a great leader, that makes me a great leader, right? Well, no not really.

To be authentic in the context of leadership is generally perceived to be related to a feeling that someone is being themselves, they are not trying to be something they’re not; they are being ‘true to themselves’. So, if it’s just being ourselves, how difficult can that be?

Well, sometimes pretty difficult! We all know those people who when discussing an issue will tell you one thing and then in almost the next breath will give someone else a different view, often heavily influenced by the audience they are talking to. Are they being authentic? It feels unlikely, but what if something else is going on?

I worked with a senior leader in a construction company, let’s call him Joe* who had received feedback in his 360 review which highlighted a perception from his colleagues that he lacked authenticity and to say he was devastated would be an understatement.

I’ll give you a little more context.

He had recently been appointed onto the Senior Leadership Team having been on the High Potential programme for some time. He was very good at what he did in his previous role which was in the thick of the technical detail and he had progressed fast down the technical route, so this latest promotion was a reward for that great performance.

The new role was his first experience of leading people and the team he was to lead were previously his peers so he knew what they needed right? His manager assumed that having been part of that team, it would be easy to understand what leading them would involve so he was told he would be fine and if he needed help to just shout.

New into the role and finding his fit into the SLT who clearly had a lot of confidence in him, Joe was scrabbling to get up to speed and naturally was looking to the other members of the SLT as role models on what being a leader was. Naturally, like on any leadership team there were lots of different leadership styles and lots of people willing to share their thoughts with Joe about what he should do and where his priorities should be and as a consequence, he felt pulled all over the place, trying to get up to speed and this was manifesting as pretty erratic.

Six months in and Joe was feeling exhausted, wasn’t having the impact he really wanted to make, and he felt like he was failing and his team felt like he didn’t know what he was doing.

His line manager suggested Joe could benefit from a mentor, but his assigned mentor was someone very senior in the organisation who was really busy, and it was proving difficult to find time with them and even if he could find it, what would they talk about? He didn’t want to come across as having 99 problems and no solutions, right?

Joe had spent time, often in the early hours, reflecting on his decision to take this role and had decided it had been a mistake to take the promotion but given his performance to date, didn’t feel he could ask to be demoted back into his previous role without losing face or credibility, so when we starting working together he was looking for another job, as he felt that was the only option left available to him.

This situation is surprisingly common, it’s often the case that organisations reward people with a promotion but then are too busy to equip them to do the job.

So what to do?

When Joe and I first started working together, he had just had that 360 feedback and whilst there was plenty of positive feedback was gutted to be called inauthentic, as he had always prided himself on being himself and had interpreted this feedback as somehow having lost who he was when he took on this promotion. All of the positive feedback deemed irrelevant and lost in the shadows of the lack of authenticity.

We made an outline plan to have four sessions together over a four week period and started work. The first step we took with this situation is to understand what was happening, looking at the primary situations that were bothering him immediately so we could make a prioritised intervention plan for dealing with them.

Then we spent the next couple of sessions really digging a bit deeper into how he was feeling about being a leader and how he was presenting himself as a leader to others, considering things such as:

· Why did he want to take the role?

· What impact did he want to make?

· What did he want to do differently with the team and with the organisation?

· What assumptions did he make?

· What assumptions is he making now?

· Who does he see doing leadership really well? Internally & externally? And what makes him think they are doing it so well?

· Who are the key players on the SLT and what is his relationship like with each of them?

· What is he telling people about himself as a leader in the language he uses and the actions he takes?

· How is he engaging with each person in the team?

· How is he engaging with those who lead him?

· How is he presenting his team?

· Who is in his wider network?

As we worked through each of these areas and some other areas that came out in discussion, we were able to create a list of things he could do to improve each area and then prioritised them too.

This means he had a prioritised and dated action plan that covered dealing with the pressing issues, building his leadership skills and bolstering his profile as a leader.

Having these discussions and breaking down the problem into smaller bites had the effect of making Joe feel much more positive about his situation and he could see that much of what needed to change was within his control. But you know sometimes stuff happens and so we made a plan for those times when things don’t quite go to plan too!

Over the course of our four weeks working together, Joe decided to stay in the role and really commit to the plans we created and 7 months on from then, things are still going well; his team and the SLT have responded very positively to the changes he has made, he feels he is able to be more like the leader he wanted to be and that his leadership style is well aligned to his own values.

Joe acknowledges there is still work to do and he will continue to refine as he grows into the role but he now feels he is able to lead with authenticity.


I'm Leah

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