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How to be an authentic leader

Tim Strickler - (Photo / Submitted)

Through years of working for corporations and client companies and serving on the boards of nonprofits, I’ve observed various leadership styles.

I recently witnessed a leadership failure that got me reflecting on the topic of leadership authenticity and how vital it is to healthy organizations. This reflection resulted in the following distillation of leadership authenticity attributes I view as most important.

Authentic leaders reflect honor

In fact, honor is key to their personal identity. Honor to them is, first and foremost, being a truth seeker, not a defender of self. It’s a commitment to intellectual honesty: problem solving characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude where one’s personal beliefs do not interfere with the pursuit of truth, and relevant facts are not omitted to spin a desired perception or self-image. It’s integrity, which goes well beyond truth to include justice and doing what’s right even when unpopular. Honor to them includes an attitude of humility and self-awareness, and a willingness to acknowledge mistakes and apologize when they should. It’s hard work, and a humble willingness to roll up their sleeves and help when duty calls. It’s an understanding that respect is earned. And it’s an internal coherence of mind and morals. “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony,” Mahatma Gandhi said.

Authentic leaders seek a higher purpose

Their greatest drive and satisfaction comes not from self-image but from making an impact of substance and significance. Their drive is for something greater than themselves. They grasp the life principle that we are simply asked by the Universe to bring the best version of ourselves to whatever daily situation and, if we do that with a pure heart, magic can happen.

Striving for a higher purpose means they keep the big picture in mind, living each day with intention and openness to possibilities. As Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church founder, frames it, they have a “legacy lens—they regularly peek in the rear-view mirror to see what they’re leaving behind as a leadership legacy.”

Authentic leaders are fueled by passion

They know that passion is central to motivation and focus. As Hybels says, leadership is energizing people, moving people from here to there, and they must feed on the leader’s passion … like protein. When your heart is in it, it shows and is infectious. Authentic leaders recalibrate their passion based on their evolving higher purpose, knowing that an alignment of purpose and passion is like rocket fuel.

Authentic leaders are guided by personal growth

In fact, they view all life experience through this personal-growth prism, resulting in an inherent gravity pulling them towards fulfillment of their potential. And this view fosters resilience during tough times: Their spirit is strong and flexible and enduring.

They don’t cave, don’t get bitter. Rather, they learn and reinvent — each version better than the previous. “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him,” said the famous American newscaster David Brinkley. Authentic leaders are confident, but make allowances for opinions of others. They have a regular discipline of self-reflection. And they know they must intentionally mine their gifts, not only work on their weaknesses. “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals,” the poet Goethe said.

Authentic leaders care about people

The leadership author John Maxwell says that there are three questions followers implicitly ask leaders:

  1. Do you like me?
  2. Can you help me?
  3. Can I trust you?

Authentic leaders understand this. As such, they are willing to truly engage with people, listening more than they talk. They know business is not a democracy, but understand the vital importance of collaboration and connection. They are willing to give of their time and attention, even reflecting vulnerability at times. Authentic leaders know the healing power of humor — and that work must include some happiness and fun. They are willing to stand against the culture-cancer of arrogance and position-power bullying. And they do their best to ensure their personal reactions — even under stress — reflect wisdom, thoughtfulness and self-control.

When leaders embody this authenticity, both the leader and the entire team find it a much happier and more fulfilling environment in which to bring their finest efforts towards driving company success.

Tim Strickler is principal of Strickler Consulting LLC, a professional services firm based in Springettsbury Township, York County, offering interim CFO and strategic project services. A former finance executive at The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., he can be reached at [email protected] or 717-870-8547.

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