How to Lead Authentically

We live in a paradoxical world. On one hand, we are more connected than ever before. Social media and our portable devices make posting and reading content, liking, commenting and sharing easier and faster than ever. We know what our contacts are doing in real time and can join them virtually from the comfort of wherever we are and whatever we’re doing at that moment. Email and a host of messaging platforms also keep the virtual conversation going around the clock.

Yet, there is something about all of this connecting that leaves so many of us unfulfilled.

Part of the issue, no doubt, is the superficiality of how we connect and engage. Though our networks are larger and more diverse than ever before, the quality of those connections is simply not there. So much of communication depends on things technology cannot replace, like nonverbals, proximity and the like.

But for many of us, a bigger issue with today’s networking, or Networking 2.0, may be the inauthenticity and contrived realities that it fosters.

If your social feed is anything like mine, you are inundated daily by friends, connections and pseudo-celebrities pitching highlight reels of unmitigated successes. In response, we scramble to create our own picture-perfect realities, as if every day is the best day of our lives, with no setbacks or worries.

It’s like we are seeking to build relationships on golden quicksand, scurrying to build layer upon layer of new achievements before the foundation sinks in beneath us.

That certainly is not a way to create sustained, meaningful relationships.

Perhaps that is why we spend so much of our time on social media hunting down authenticity. I recently interviewed a rising social media star and best-selling author Daniel Gefen for my podcast. During our conversation, I asked him about how he has built his online presence. This is what he told me:

“Be real. Don't pretend to be someone you’re not. Don’t think that if you look successful, people will respect you more. … People root for [those] who are raw, honest and authentic. That’s what people crave… especially online where there’s so much fake. There are so many people trying to… be someone they’re not like and we smell it a mile away.”

While authenticity is important everywhere, it is perhaps most significant for leaders to demonstrate.

Why? Because authenticity breeds trust, which is a crucial element in the workplace. Leaders who demonstrate integrity and character command support and fidelity. We are much more likely to go the extra mile and stand by them regardless of circumstance. In contrast, the absence of trust can make it very difficult for leaders to gain support.

While leadership is often presented as a matter of giving to and serving others, authenticity focuses the leader first on self-development. It requires leaders to be on a journey to uncover their inner values, strengths, passion and vision. When they do this, they develop a "true north" inner compass that can guide them in everyday life and show them the way when things start to become particularly sticky. It also builds trust in the leader, as others begin to see them as focused, disciplined, believable and dependable.

(Of course, once leaders have developed their authenticity, they are better suited to give to and serve others. But you can’t give what you don’t have.)

With trust in leaders at all-time lows, it’s time to consider how personal authenticity can become your greatest leadership asset.

What are the key qualities of authentic leaders?

1. Purpose driven – Authentic leaders are driven to discover who they really are, to identify and connect with their "why." They use that sense of purpose to inform decision-making and stay balanced and focused, regardless of external realities. 

2. Listeners – An authentic leader is a good listener who seeks and integrates feedback. 

3. Dialoguers – Authentic leaders promote safe, trustworthy dialogue. They master the art of conversation and share their leadership story or point of view, especially with people new to the organization. 

4. Connectors – Authentic leaders lean into challenges and go the extra mile to work with, understand and develop the people they are privileged to lead.

Here are some strategies to help build your authenticity:

1. Learn to live in your comfort zone. Stay consistently true to your values, even when it seems more comfortable or convenient to adjust your style to outside whims and interests.

2. Get real. Ask yourself, “How would I behave if money and social expectations were not factors in my life?”

3. Go back to basics. Remind yourself what you wanted to be when you grew up. Picture yourself in your childhood dream. Do you see that smile and that positive energy? That can be your life.

4. Surround yourself with the right people. Identify who you can be yourself around. Because we are social creatures, it is important to spend time with people who make us feel good and accept us for who we really are.

Being authentic as a leader is hard work. No one can be truly authentic all the time; everyone will say and do things they will come to regret. The key is to make authenticity a priority to work toward and then to have the self-awareness to recognize these times and listen to close colleagues who point them out.


Naphtali Hoff, Psy.D., is an executive coach and president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. He is also author of a new leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Learn more from Naphtali by reading his blog and listening to his leadership podcast.

*This piece originally appeared in SmartBrief on Leadership.

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