Often we set out to become a stronger leader but don't know where to begin. What's our goal? That's what we've set out to address. This question is particularly salient if you're supporting leaders and teams at scale. You might hear the word authentic, or authentic leadership a lot, but what does it mean? We'll answer those questions surrounding the what, why, and how of authentic leadership. Then we'll answer an equally important question: how do you assess authenticity in leadership? Last, we'll share a short and simple questionnaire to benchmark today and build an action plan for excellence.
What is Authentic Leadership?
First, let's start with the challenge. Roughly only 20 percent of us deeply trust the leadership we work alongside. Trust grows from consistency and a learned confidence that the leader's actions and decisions are rooted in values that support human goodness.
Behaviorally speaking, when we're authentic leaders we act and communicate transparently. Our teams embrace our direction as they know where we're headed together. In short, authentic leaders build connections with self-awareness and cultivate strong relationships based on trust and respect.
We're seeking to inspire and motivate others by being sincere and open about how our values and the greater good are directing decisions: actions and words. Why this matters, beyond the obvious, is that you're building psychological safety: positioning yourself as a person that can be trusted to support your team through pitfalls and setbacks. We'll talk more about that later.
Key Characteristics of Authentic Leadership
We know authenticity comes from leading with our values, but what does that look like? A strong definition gives us something to work towards. When reviewing empirical research and thought leadership on the topic, across contexts and industries, authentic leaders embody these
1. Self-awareness: They have a dynamic understanding of their own strengths, weaknesses, values, and emotions. They are aware of their impact on others and actively seek feedback to improve their self-awareness. Giveaways of self-awareness are leaders who continually ask for your input and feedback, as well as a voracious appetite to learn.
2. Relational transparency: Authentic leaders build genuine and trusting relationships with their followers. They are candid and genuine in their communication, share information freely, and foster an expectation of transparency and trust.
3. A clear moral compass, a known north star: Authentic leaders have a strong moral compass and act in alignment with their values and beliefs. They make ethical decisions and demonstrate integrity in their actions. This is where culture can come into play. A strong and healthy culture magnifies the ability of an authentic leader to accomplish great things by fluidly connecting the motivations and goals of employees to reach a shared destination.
4. Balanced processing: Authentic leaders consider different perspectives and seek input from their team members before making decisions. They are open to feedback and willing to admit when they are wrong.
5. Positive human capital and overall well-being: Authentic leaders foster a positive work environment and promote optimism, resilience, hope, and self-efficacy among their followers. They inspire and motivate others to achieve their full potential.
Acting authentically means we're agile in responding to the unexpected. Sustaining this connection requires constant self-awareness and an ability to connect the environment around us to communication and action that supports our compass.
With constantly shifting customer preferences, market forces, and employee needs, the strong and clear connection to values, and the ability to foster trust, make authentic leadership a greater need now than before. But what do we know about the science of why authenticity matters so much?
Why Authentic Leadership Matters
Authentic people are better able to build deeper, more rewarding relationships because they are built on truth and allow for each person to express their genuine selves. In the workplace this matters because it nurtures trust, employee engagement, and commitment across teams, customers, and stakeholders overall. When leaders are authentic, they create an environment where individuals feel what we term, the four cornerstones for thriving relationships: respect, understanding, caring and fairness.
Now that we understand the qualities driving an authentic leader, and the mindsets they inspire in their followers, how, operationally speaking, do these thoughts translate to action?
Consistent communication, in terms of both emotion and message, is foundational for authentic leaders. They ensure that their words align with their actions, reinforcing trust and credibility. This consistency is crucial in maintaining employee morale and commitment, especially during periods of change or uncertainty.
We've mentioned transparency a few times so far. Authentic leaders prioritize transparency in their communication. Transparency is two-fold. One element is sharing the full picture, or as much of the full picture, as we can with employees. The next is personal: candidly sharing our own successes but also challenges and failures. Making this a daily discipline fosters trust. This openness encourages a culture where employees feel valued and informed, leading to stronger commitment and engagement. Through its influence on employee engagement and trust, all forms of transparency can help us not only create remarkable places to work but also do business. Indeed, companies that excel in customer experience maintain 1.5 times more highly engaged employees. Further, in our research linking employee engagement to customer success, we see an increase in sales of over 20 percent between average and highly engaged customer-facing teams. Further, engagement and commitment strongly reduce turnover and a tenured team is a necessity for earning customer trust and engagement.
In short, there's a strong direct link between employee satisfaction, customer loyalty, and profitability. Researchers found that even slight improvements to the employee experience (like leaders making a small but conscious effort to share their thoughts and challenges) saw improvements in customer satisfaction of up to 1.3%, which then translated into a revenue increase of about 0.5%. The link is so enduring across contexts and industries that the researchers termed it the Service-Profit-Chain.
Active Listening and Empathy
These leaders practice this critical component of effective communication. By genuinely listening to their team members, they understand their perspectives and concerns, fostering a sense of belonging and respect. This empathetic approach to communication is linked to higher employee satisfaction and retention.
This peer-reviewed research specifically shows highly empathic leaders will recognize warning signs more quickly, have access to more crisis-related information, earn greater stakeholder recognition via displays of compassion, and are more committed to healing the organization’s relational ecosystem. Conversely, they may be more predisposed to false alarms, view crisis related information with blinders over the big picture, over-inclined to give apologetic messaging, and may overlook operational fixes being highly focused on repairing relationships. Despite these risks, (not surprising to us) empirical research supports solid dividends of an empathetic approach to solid returns within the business, results, and culture.
Have you heard of the concept of a feedback loop? This is when one experience of feedback kicks off a positive self-fueling cycle of feedback. When we measure empathy and values-driven leadership, we find a strong link to seek out and act on performance-relevant information. Given their transparency and empathy, leaders who earn a reputation for authenticity and act in accord with a clear set of values may ignite positive feedback loops more than their counterparts.
Understanding the individual needs and preferences of team members, authentic leaders tailor their communication style. This personalized approach not only demonstrates respect for individual differences but also increases the staying power of the communication.
Think about your expectations as a customer for a moment. Upwards of 70 percent of us expect companies we do business with to personalize and tailor how they treat us. For example, the celebratory emails from my car insurance celebrating my loyalty make me strangely happy every six months.
If we're expecting that of Sephora, Progressive, or Home Depot, most of us likely have an even higher standard for our employer. Authentic leaders seek to build a connection between those they lead and their values and mission making personalized communication paramount. Authentic leaders are driven to build a connection between the organization's values and the employee's goals, motivation, and shared understanding.
Collaboration and Innovation
We know authentic leaders are strategic and connecting communicators, but how do they manage the flow of ideas, build connections across functions, and deliver new ideas to the market?
Think of a leader you've worked with who matches the definition of authenticity as we described. How did you feel working with them?
You probably find yourself thinking of an environment where natural mistakes and setbacks were weathered relatively smoothly. You might have embraced new opportunities knowing the person had your back. Difficult situations like upset customers or colleagues may have been less distressing knowing the leader was in your corner.
This all goes to the idea of psychological safety. By creating a transparent environment and strong relational ties, we're free of the stress of what might happen and can instead focus on supporting the goals and North Star that were clearly communicated to us.
We prefer to include psychological safety in all our employee experience and engagement surveys because we know its importance. When team members feel safe to express their ideas and feelings without fear of negative consequences, naturally, collaboration flourishes. Not surprisingly, peer-reviewed research finds a strong link between safety and team learning and performance.
Embracing Diverse Perspectives
Values-driven authentic leaders encourage and recognize diverse viewpoints and experiences, knowing innovation often stems from beautifully different and incremental ideas. There's a strong link between ensuring all members of a team feel that they belong and are valued (think the four cornerstones of flourishing relationships we shared earlier) and team cohesion and idea sharing.
Authentic leaders are driven to achieve something greater than themselves. The connection between their own identity and that of the organization fuels a strong sense of meaning and purpose. These leaders are more likely than others to seek out opportunities to mentor, coach, and teach, and establish systems that support others in providing these opportunities. This focus on inclusivity and learning makes it more likely that respect for diverse perspectives will be encouraged.
How can we assess Authentic Leadership?
This question has two related answers: macro and individual. You could be thinking about yourself, or a leader specifically, that you're seeking to cultivate. Alternatively, on the macro side, you may be seeking to tackle leadership across your organization or for a specific group. Luckily, there are numerous effective methods available to evaluate authentic leadership, such as self-assessments, performance feedback, 360-degree reviews, and immersive coaching.
Development-focused assessments are rich tools that allow individuals to reflect on their leadership behaviors and evaluate their level of authenticity. These tools typically consist of a series of statements or scenarios that prompt individuals to consider their values, actions, and the impact they have on others. Anecdotally, by taking one of our development-focused assessments, I realized that my focus on compassion and relationship-building could put me in a tough spot when establishing a meaningful relationship was not possible. When combined with performance feedback, development assessments deliver a clear picture: an understanding of our internal drivers and how our actions affect and influence others.
While assessments capture our perceptions and beliefs, performance feedback methods, like 360-degree feedback capture the observations of others. A 360 means we're gathering feedback from a variety of sources, including superiors, peers, and direct reports. When reviewing the results with participants and their teams we usually find that we're more consistent and transparent with some groups than others. For example, the values we communicate may consistently resonate with our direct reports, but our peers sometimes struggle to figure out where we're headed. Personally, when I transitioned from academia, working as a professor, to consulting with Corvirtus, I struggled the most with my peer group. 360-degree feedback started me on my way to figuring out how to close the gaps between what I need my peers to experience and their perceptions and shared experiences.
You can imagine how performance feedback can be launched for a specific leader or employee, or all leaders. At scale, these processes deliver comprehensive feedback and provide a well-rounded perspective on the leader's authenticity and the impact their leadership approach has on others. It allows individuals to understand how their actions and behaviors are perceived by different stakeholders and provides valuable insights for growth and development.
Immersive experiences, like coaching and mentoring guide us as leaders in connecting the dots from what we learned from performance feedback and assessment. Coaches and mentors can be trained and supported in understanding the traits and behaviors of authentic leadership, seeking to understand the participant's values, and connecting them to a broader meaningful mission, and forming the blueprint for engagement and motivation.
For example, with a couple of large geographically dispersed businesses, we've combined performance feedback with introspective self-assessments to deliver scalable development. Participants were grouped with leaders with similar strengths. By meeting several times over six months we accelerate the odds of behavior change (ultimately, improving how we lead comes down to our ability to change our behavior)
Why is this important? As we share in this review of science-driven employee engagement strategies, most efforts to change our behavior fail (think healthy eating, budgeting, or even a company making its strategy happen). A major reason is a lack of learning and intentional opportunities to reflect on the mission and how steep the path will be to get there.
Another experience to cement our growth and progress in becoming more authentic and stronger leaders is consistent mentoring and coaching. A trusted coach can observe a leader's actions and behaviors in real-life situations, one can gain a deeper understanding of their authenticity and the effectiveness of their leadership approach. Looking back, to draw on my professor-to-consultant transition again, it's difficult to find the words to describe the significance of their daily coaching and feedback.
While not everyone can work side-by-side with five decades of experienced leaders for several years like I did, you can build mentoring and coaching relationships more on an individual or macro level.
By connecting these assessment methods, individuals and organizations can gain a better understanding of their authentic leadership capabilities and identify areas for growth and development. In short, assessment, whether introspective, on-the-job observations from a mentor or coach, or performance feedback allows us to see what we cannot know and target gaps in our path to becoming an authentic leader. Whether through a self-assessment or on-the-job performance feedback, we receive a glimpse into potential and evidence-based insights to keep us on the path to our mission and leading through our values.
How can we become stronger Authentic Leaders? A practical questionnaire.
Whether you're thinking about your leadership, the strength of leadership on your team, or a leader that you want to support, we have a quick and simple questionnaire that can help you assess authentic leadership right now. As becoming a stronger authentic leader requires self-reflection, continuous learning, and intentional practice, this may be a tool you want to revisit occasionally. It might also be a great kick-starter to a meeting or training that involves leadership.
The self-assessment questionnaire below is a tool designed to help explore strengths within how you (or others) lead and uncover blind spots. The simple questions below prompt you to reflect on your leadership behaviors, values, and beliefs. Feel free to take notes on what areas most surprise you and steps to accelerate how you connect your values and goals to your words and actions.
To get the most accurate results, answer each question honestly and reflect on your leadership experiences. Once you have completed the questionnaire, you can interpret your results and identify areas for growth and development.
Authentic Leadership Questionnaire
Take a moment to reflect on each of the following areas of authentic leadership over the past six months. Choose the rating that best describes your consistency in each behavior using this simple scale. Sum up your score after considering all six areas.
5 = Leading. You're consistently delivering this and it's part of your routine and how you lead.
4 = Thriving. There are a few opportunities you want to tackle, but you're mostly consistent in this area.
3 = Achieving. Your actions and results might fall short but it's not a barrier to results for the most part.
2 = Building. This area is a barrier to you achieving intended results whether that's engaging your team or key business outcomes.
- Self-awareness: You take time to reflect on your values, strengths, and weaknesses. You're regularly seeking feedback from others and your team would say you are open to self-improvement. You initiate feedback loops across your span of influence.
- Communication: You foster open and honest communication with your followers. If asked, they would agree you show empathy, listen actively, and are transparent in your actions and decisions.
- Integrity with your moral compass: You make ethical decisions and demonstrate consistency between your words and actions. Your team and stakeholders (like customers, as applicable) would say you are honest, fair, and accountable for your actions. If asked, your team would accurately share the values you prioritize in your leadership.
- Collaboration: You're embracing diverse viewpoints and actively seeking input from your team. When you see someone is cautious or hesitant you act to ensure they feel psychologically safe and know they belong You consider different perspectives before making decisions and be willing to admit mistakes.
- Positivity: You're continually delivering a supportive and empowering work environment that promotes optimism, resilience, and growth. If we asked them, most of your employees would enthusiastically say you recognize and appreciate the contributions of your followers.
- Continuously learning and growing: Those who work with you would say you're curious and open to new ideas. You've engineered an environment where others do the same. You're transparent about your journey to become a better person and leader with your team. If asked, they could share something about what you're working to improve.
If you take the average of your ratings, where do you fall on the spectrum from Leading to Building? What surprised you?
Interpreting Your Results and Next Steps
When talking to leaders about assessments, I love the productive conversations that happen after I mention that an assessment cannot be effective if leadership does not apply the results. After completing the above questionnaire, or any self-assessment we shared earlier, you must determine concrete next steps that will move you forward on your journey as an authentic leader. Each of aspect of leadership depends on the others so an overall score might not paint an accurate picture of what actions you need to take. Take note of your strongest areas; the ones where you're a five-out-of-five and are leading the charge. Can you take those behaviors and approaches and apply them to new contexts of your work and leadership?
Take time to review your responses and consider how they align with the key characteristics of authentic leadership. Select areas where you scored high and areas where you scored lower, as these can indicate your strengths and areas for improvement as an authentic leader.
Next, create an action plan to enhance your authentic leadership skills. Set specific goals and identify the steps you need to take to achieve them. This may include seeking feedback from others, attending leadership development programs, or practicing self-reflection and self-improvement techniques.
Remember, authentic leadership is a never-ending journey. Leadership is unique in that it rewards us with more challenges as we gain experience. Knowing that we're working towards what at our core is most meaningful is what will sustain us and allow others to flourish as our paths connect and we walk together.