Authentic leaders are by definition singular individuals. They possess a unique array of qualities and skills that enable them to lead others. Yet, we shouldn’t assume that these attributes are unattainable or too challenging to learn. Leadership skills are uncommon simply because we’ve received little or no education in this subject. If mathematics wasn’t routinely taught in school, mastering math would also be a rare achievement. And so the same is true of leadership.
Culturally, we tend to focus on the external characteristics of leaders, how they present themselves, their intelligence, their style and effect. The path to sustainable and genuine leadership, however is the inner path. This is a pathway that can be learned and cultivated. I envision three pillars that platform authentic leadership. Learning these skills enables genuine leadership ability for corporations, organizations, associations and families. The first is emotional intelligence.
Great leaders communicate with consummate effectiveness. This principle pillar of leadership is sourced through emotional intelligence and the ability to deeply connect with others. Our focus on cognitive intelligence, which devalues emotional intelligence, is stunningly incomplete. The thoughts, ideas, and information that we need to share with one another are typically pursued in a transactional manner. We exchange instructions, strategies, and concepts and believe they’ve been received and understood as we intended. This belief is grossly misinformed. We aren’t robots transacting with one another, but complex humans with unique personal narratives, feelings, and beliefs. The same words or phrase may mean differing things to different people. They might inspire some and leave others feeling ambivalent or worse. This leads to failed, ineffective communication.
Emotional intelligence requires both awareness of the other’s feelings and beliefs and a cognizance of your own stirrings. The subterranean realm of our private, personal existence has profound sway over the business of business. In my executive coaching practice, my clients don’t typically speak about factual or substantive issues they’re having with their bosses or colleagues. Instead, they present their troubled feelings, challenges, frustrations and miscommunications.
Authentic leaders connect on emotional levels with those around them. They tune in to their people. This type of attuning seeks to appreciate how the other person perceives matters, addressing what typically goes unspoken. Leaders seek a correspondence with those around them. Emotional connectivity betters the opportunity for coherent communication. This relatedness prospers when the quality of empathy is valued. Empathy, the ability to best appreciate what the other person is feeling and experiencing, allows truly informed communication to prevail.
Radical Emotional Transparency
The concept of radical transparency, a fundamental motif of Bridgewater’s Ray Dallio, proposes that all individuals should openly challenge one other’s positions for the goal of reaching the most credible truth. Although this endeavor has obvious merits, it doesn’t take in to account that we are not only thinking but feeling people. If we pretend that our values, personal history, emotions, relationships, and beliefs don’t spill over into the reasoned and rational discourse, we are sorely misinformed. Radical transparency must take in to account how our subjective beliefs and feelings filter and inform what we ultimately hear and how we respond.
Deeply effective communication seeks shared meaning. This is a collaborative type dialogue that checks in to assure that what we’ve just shared has been received in the way we intended. Leaders realize that what they intended to communicate may not have been received as planned. This checking in process is also respectful and sincere as it enables leaders to get closer to their team. For the musicians in an orchestra to be in musical concert with one another, the conductor must make certain they are all playing from the same score. The same holds true for all leaders.
The next pillar of leadership is authenticity. I use the term authentic leadership to evoke the qualities of truly special leaders. Should you have occasion to meet or witness such individuals you’ll notice that there’s an extra-ordinary quality to them. They shine by virtue of their authenticity, which is a very rarified quality. For example, the Dalai Lama exudes authenticity. You simply know that you’re in the company of an extra-ordinary person.
An authentic individual evokes an image of someone who has not been adulterated because of fear, concerns with self-worth, or worries about what others may think of him or her. Most people are concerned with what others think of them, or more to the point, what they think others think of them. These individuals may disguise, manipulate or hide their thoughts, feelings and beliefs due to their insecurity. This is what I call other-esteem, which is sadly common and absent the authentic self-esteem that unique leaders possess.
From the authentic self, we invest in and articulate that which we think and believe, free from the constraint of worries. The vast majority of people deflect or mitigate their communications and actions because they worry about how they will be seen. Being authentic allows you to be receptive to the feedback and opinions of others, you simply don’t betray your genuine self from fear. When our thoughts conspire in a tangled web of why we shouldn’t say or do something, we lose our authenticity.
Authenticity requires a genuine sharing of our inner self. Very often, our actions in a given moment are intended to avoid certain consequences. And so, we alter or suppress our communications and play it safe. These tendencies diminish our authenticity as they constrain our growth and self-esteem. Great leaders don’t fall prey to these concerns.
Authentic leaders learn from those around them as the separation between self and others falls away. The core sense of authentic self is always in an emergent process, never static. Freed from the constraint of worry about how you’re being perceived, you’re now free to tune into yourself, those around you and your ever -changing environment.
The third pillar of authentic leadership requires a counterintuitive embracing of uncertainty. Our orientation toward predicting future events—a remnant of Newtonian determinism—has addicted us to seeking certainty and predictability and therefore avoiding uncertainty. From this paradigm we see ourselves as separate and detached from future events, which nullifies genuine leadership as we become spectators rather than leaders. This state of analytical bondage is contrary to leading. We can’t lead others by simply sitting back and calculating as if we were playing a chess match. Leaders must be informed by pertinent information but not suffocated by an avalanche of data.
Leadership requires embracing uncertainty to actualize new possibilities. The stewards of leadership participate in the reality-making process that welcomes rather than resist uncertainty. From this vantage, the fear of making mistakes retreats. What we call a mistake is but a snapshot frozen in time. But time doesn’t stand still. Authentic leaders don’t fret the consequences of their actions as much as they consider the consequences of their inactions.
We need to take a deeper look at the concept of change and change process. The word change suggests that there are times when things are static and inert and times when they are not, hence the concept of change. Quantum physics suggests otherwise. It appears that reality is never static or unchanging. This is why I refer to it as the reality-making process. The old adage, “the only constant is change, needs to be revised to “everything perpetually flows.” Great leaders must relish the flow, dive in and truly lead. This requires seeing uncertainty as your ally, the realm from which new possibilities are created. This is participatory leadership as we participate in the unfolding of what we call the future. These three pillars of leadership create a formidable platform from which to lead others.