Bill George, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, was once asked to describe the most important characteristics a leader needed in his company. He said, “I can summarize it in a single word: authenticity.”
Authenticity is essential, and yet it is an aspect of leadership that is often overlooked.
Authentic leadership goes beyond what we tend to think of as the skills and knowledge required for leadership. Every leader must know how to influence, motivate, organize, manage, communicate effectively, and so on. These traits, for the most part, can be acquired through a typical MBA program as well as on-the-job training. They have been described endlessly in the literature and are the focus of most leadership development programs.
Authentic leaders take these traits to another level. They are able to influence, motivate, and so on, but do not exercise these abilities as strategies or techniques. Authentic leaders don’t operate out of an acquired leadership personality. They don’t have one personality when they are in front of staff and another when they are by themselves or with friends.
Rather, authentic leaders know how to lead from a place beyond the intellectual mind. They operate from the heart and are always in line with their purpose in life. They are simply and genuinely themselves in all situations.
Leaders who embody authentic leadership are able to move smoothly and effortlessly between two worlds. They are at ease and confident in the external world of their company, employees, and the market in general. They are equally comfortable in their own internal world, within their own being, or spirit. Authentic leaders respond to both worlds as one integrated whole.
How specifically can I summarize what makes a leader authentic? I have observed that these leaders have six characteristics:
1. Authentic leaders are genuine.
They are true to themselves, however that may manifest. They feel at home in their own skin, and aren’t afraid to let others see them as they are, including whatever shortcomings they may have.
2. Authentic leaders have found their purpose in life.
They find meaning in their work and other life activities, and have a clear basis for making the decisions and choices they make. Their personal and career goals are in alignment with their true nature.
3. Authentic leaders lead their organization with purpose and vision.
They are not in business for purely financial reasons; rather, they and their organization exist to provide a service to society. Their vision comes first, and they set goals to achieve that vision.
4. Authentic leaders know when to act and when to be patient. They know intuitively when an action needs to be taken and when the more effective course is to wait. Everything in life and in business has a right time. The key is to recognize and move with the flow.
5. Authentic leaders know the external world has no influence over their being.
Because they are in touch with their hearts, they aren’t thrown by changes and challenges in the external world. They remain calm and content, and don’t worry about what others may think of them.
6. Authentic leaders are comfortable not being in control (and thus are in total control).
They don’t need to impose their own control over situations. Because they are in the flow and don’t resist change in their business and personal worlds they actually feel more in control than if they were engaged in a constant struggle to exert control.
Authentic leaders bring their spirit to their work. The Tao Te Ching expresses this beautifully:
If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao (the flow of life). Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts, and the world will govern itself.