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Work How To Practice Authentic Leadership

How To Practice Authentic Leadership

Peace within, peace without, peace among

—Virginia Satir

“What are you smuggling in?”

This is what one of my teachers in authentic leadership used to ask me. He meant, what are my motivations for leading? Aside from wanting to serve the world, was I looking for recognition? Belonging? Meaning? Money? 

All of those motivations fall, of course, into the category of “I can’t talk about that.” As an authentic leader, I must be pure. I must be justified. I must be an example of care and altruism and the values for which I stand.

Bullsh*t.

Yes, I have to be an example of my values, because people will follow what I embody more than what I say. But one of my values is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance not only leads to less pain, it also removes the shame and dishonesty that block productivity. 

Half-expressed people don’t change the world. 

How can I promote self-acceptance in others if I’m pushing away aspects of my own truth? 

What Is Authentic Leadership?


How to be an authentic leader

Authentic leadership is honesty with my own motivations, and the capacity to reveal that truth to others. 

It is the “selfish” act of naming and following my own desires, in such a way that others are inspired to follow their own and correct me when I overstep. 

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Authentic leadership creates integrity: alignment between values, words, and actions.

It is one of the most powerful, vulnerable roles a human can take.

Let’s explore this definition.

3 Aspects of Authentic Leadership


1. Honest leadership

When I’m honest about my smuggles – what I want from leadership for myself, for others, or for the world – I make myself trustable, and I invite others to be honest as well. 

To know my smuggles, I have to ask myself “why am I doing or standing for this?” 

If I reveal that “why” to others –  for example, “I want you to follow me because I think it will be fun, and because I need you in order to accomplish this mission” – it’s far more engaging than just saying, “follow me!” 

Once I’m aware of my smuggled-in motivations, I have to follow them. 

This is a selfish act. I am coming from myself and acting on my own desires. 

Isn’t that a bad thing for a leader to do?

2. Selfish leadership

I believe selfishness is one of a leader’s greatest assets. 

Many of us don’t know what we want, and we can’t find it until someone else states their own desire. Then I at least know if I do or don’t want that! My truth allows others to find theirs. 

As a leader, my main role is to take us in some direction. The worst thing I can do is become paralyzed by indecision. If others aren’t clear on what they want, my own desire has to be my compass.

However, to be effective, authentic leadership must balance selfishness with responsiveness. 

If I only ever follow my own desires, I become a dictator. I personally like being liked rather than lynched, so I balance speaking what I want with noticing how people respond. 

Are they following me eagerly or reluctantly? Do they hesitate before saying “yes”? Do they seem uncomfortable? 

If so, I ask, “What do you think about this idea? Is there anything I’m missing?”

I’m often surprised and delighted by the collaboration that ensues. Other people come up with most of my best thoughts.

Authenticity in leadership – honesty with my motivations and desires – leads to strong expression. 

Selfishness – acting on those desires – leads to strong action.

Responsiveness – listening and watching for others’ reactions, and actively asking for them – inspires strength in others as well.

3. Integrity

what is authentic leadership?

Another benefit of authenticity in leadership is integrity. Integrity, to me, is alignment between my values, words, and actions. 

Have you ever been around a leader (or teacher, or therapist) who is saying one thing but doing another? Or who seems to be feeling one thing, maybe discomfort, but telling you that they’re fine? 

Do you trust that person?

Leadership is about translation and transmission. Translation is the words you say, how people hear you. Transmission is the way you act, how people feel you. Saving face may serve your image, but it will lose you trust over time. 

Following values is hard. It’s much harder than telling other people what to do. I may say that I want to be compassionate, but it’s not an easy practice when someone’s driving me up the wall. Why can’t I just judge them? Why can’t I follow my impulse – isn’t that “authentic”?

Authenticity with feelings is powerful in the moment, but authenticity with values is powerful over time. 

If you can’t follow your values, then consider re-evaluating them, or be honest with others when you’re out of integrity. Integrity is a learning process. We’re always approaching it, never fully there. The more honest you are about your own mistakes, the more space you and others have to screw up…and learn.

Authentic leadership can be hard. When someone asks how you’re doing, it’s a lot easier to say “I’m fine” than to say, “I’m worried that I’m messing this up.” 

Honesty puts you in a vulnerable position. People may not always respond well. They may be scared of honesty too.

The authentic leader hurts more, but suffers less. Their groups are more prone to conflict – because honesty reveals differences between people – but they’re also more alive, more creative, and quicker to react. 

In being honest, you, the authentic leader, can open the space for others to see and accept more of themselves.

When the Master leads, the people say “look, we did it – 

all by ourselves.”

—Tao Te Ching

What is authentic leadership to you? How do you know when you’re being an authentic leader? I’d love to hear some of your thoughts in the comments below!

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