Of authentic origin and not a copy, genuine.
What does that mean in the context of leadership? How do you become genuine and not a copy? Well, you don’t become that person by reading Richard Branson’s books or from studying the works of Jim Collins (From Good to Great et cetera).
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: Envy Is Ignorance And Imitation Is Suicide!
Authentic leadership starts and ends with the person in question who wants to be or needs to be a leader. There is no external reference point for your authenticity. It comes from within and it comes from – as the Delphi Oracle would say – “knowing thyself”.
Authentic leadership does not come from doing an MBA – that is the ultimate form of imitation – copying the thinking, business plans and three-word abbreviations of other people.
Neither does it come from study or intellectual knowledge. To be seen as an authentic leader you need to be internally and externally consistent: what you think, feel and say must be one and the same. In this respect, Gandhi was an authentic leader.
If there is conflict or inconsistency within you then authenticity and sincerity are unlikely to be words that people would use to describe you.
Many of us are conflicted at work because we think we need to assume a certain role and act a certain way either to fit in or to become successful. The personality traits that are often used to identify who would make a great CEO are the same personality traits that identify somebody as a sociopath. American Psycho anyone?
People are all too often afraid to be an authentic leader because it requires us to display traits that are not encouraged in our culture – the principal one being vulnerability. When you are authentic you are putting your true self on display and opening yourself up for scrutiny by those who do not agree with you (and there will always be plenty of people who do not agree with you). We are not trained nor encouraged to be vulnerable just as we are not trained nor encouraged to be authentic in the way that we live our lives. We are taught that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness. We are taught that when we display vulnerability we will be exploited. And often we are by people who themselves are not genuine and who have a mask on to hide their own vulnerabilities. So the teachings are reinforced. But how can you be genuine without being vulnerable?
What does it mean to know yourself? It doesn’t mean being intimately familiar with your CV and your extensive and ever-growing list of material possessions. It means that you are capable of introspection, capable of self-observation and reflection. Capable of knowing when your emotions are leading you astray and how to get yourself back on track. Capable of embracing divergent opinions and conflicting ideas from others without permanent damage to your ego. It means to be serene and quietly confident in your abilities, and knowing that you can show true grit and persistence in areas that matter to you and what you believe in. Again, like vulnerability, self-awareness is not something that we are taught nor is it encouraged (outside of yoga retreats!). But if you want to be in an authentic leader it is an essential component.
So what is authentic leadership? Knowing thyself and being thyself in all aspects of your life. Who you are at home is who you are at the office. Authentic leadership is having the courage – like Gandhi – to be yourself regardless of the circumstances and the consequences. Anything else is a copy.