How can leaders be authentic and encourage others to do the same while concurrently meeting the needs of the overall team and organization? This chapter explores the process of becoming a more authentic leader by applying the Innovative Leadership model. It walks through the five elements of the innovative leadership model then explores how each element contributes to the leader’s ability to become authentic, providing action steps and examples.
Bill is a highly-skilled leader. Self-aware, he makes a concerted effort to create an environment in which each of his team members can be their most effective at work. He has assembled a diverse staff with unique skills and a lot of idiosyncrasies, and he has worked hard to help this staff of stars come together as a cohesive team.
One morning he arrives to find an obviously upset employee, Michelle, sitting in his office. Michelle, who is clearly concerned about the condescending behavior of another colleague, suggests that the work environment Bill created is hostile and not supportive enough for her to do her best work. She feels belittled by her colleague and is seeking Bill’s support to ensure the office in which they work is conducive to delivering top quality service to their clients. As she leaves, Bill thinks about his leadership style. He asks himself if his style has created an environment that promotes a positive work environment for all employees. Is he allowing some people to treat others in a negative or unsupportive way? Is there anything he could do differently to promote a more productive and supportive environment? How can he create an environment that allows unique people to be themselves and, at the same time, work as a cohesive team? Bill’s instincts say he has created a positive environment but now he hears from a valued employee that he may not be doing as well as he thought. Fundamentally, the question becomes: Is Bill’s authentic leadership style supportive of organizational success? Does he need to refine his style or develop as a leader to be both authentic and create a positive environment?
These questions beg a new one: How can leaders be authentic and encourage others to do the same while concurrently meeting the needs of the overall team and organization?
Introduction of the Innovative Leadership Model
Let’s start with a definition of authenticity from a recent Forbes article by Henry Doss: “Learning about yourself is perhaps the single most important outcome of a powerful educational experience. Self-awareness can lead to an ever-increasing authenticity, which in turn leads to powerful leadership abilities. Authenticity is not about ’accept me for what I am‘; authentic leaders are self-aware, willing to adapt and change and ’be who they are in service to others.’ Education should be a powerful process of increasing self-awareness, of coming to know yourself and of learning the intrinsic value of who you are as a human being. . . and then understanding the need for constant change, personal growth and learning for the rest of your life.”
Let’s explore how the five elements of innovative leadership can help leaders become more authentic. Notice the five key elements of the pyramid. By using these elements you can become a more authentic and effective leader:
- Build self-awareness by understanding your leadership type by taking an assessment to understand yourself; then, learn about your colleagues’ types. By knowing who you are and who they are, you can create an environment in which people are able to comfortably be themselves and create a common language where they understand one another. In an environment such as this, the balance allows colleagues to be completely who they and also aligned with the culture of the overall group.
- Understand your personal developmental perspective (complexity of thinking, emotional intelligence, and behavior) and how individuals are able to take the perspective of many different levels. By understanding the primary perspective of your colleagues and meeting them where they are, you are showing the highest degree of respect and appreciation. The golden rule of authentic leadership could be “treat people as they need to be treated to perform at their best.” Since we are all unique, and have different expectations, treating others as you want to be treated may create some significant problems in a leadership role.
- Building resilience includes developing a strong sense of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, and knowing your strengths and preferences. It also includes understanding others’ strengths and preferences, and demonstrating the flexibility to respond to another’s level appropriately.
- Developing situational analysis is the combination of understanding yourself and the organization. By using situational analysis, you are able to understand the balance between your values and the needs of the organization and act in a manner that attends to your authenticity while balancing the organization’s expectations and norms. This means you can read the situation quickly and respond accordingly. This does not mean you change your innate preference or act in a way that is not genuine, but rather in many cases learn to expand your repertoire of skills and behaviors. It is a bit like learning to swing forehand and backhand in tennis. You’ll continue to have preferences, but, by expanding your abilities, you can be both authentic and agile.
- Align leadership behavior means behaving in a manner that is authentic to you, and appropriate to the organization and situations in which you find yourself. To do this well it means you need access to a broad range of behaviors and have the skills referenced in situational analysis (found later in this article)to diagnose the organization’s requirements and your authentic style, and have the skills to balance both.
The solution to being forced to make the choice between being authentic and responding appropriately to many diverse situations is to expand your “range of behaviors” and increase your comfort with this broader range. A personal example: I (Maureen) am an introvert by nature, yet I teach and speak publicly as part of my work. I love the role of faculty member even though the specific task of teaching is not in my innate comfort zone. The key for me was to stretch my comfort zone so I can be authentic in front of a class, or an audience at a conference. When I started teaching, I really struggled with this; now, it is second nature because I worked hard to build authentic skill and comfort in front of an audience. I continue to be an introvert—and I probably teach a bit differently than Dani, an extrovert, would—but through self-awareness, pushing the confines of my comfort zone, and practice I’ve found a way to be authentically myself, and really enjoy teaching and speaking.
Now that you understand each the five elements of innovative leadership at a high level, we will explore how each element contributes to your ability to become a more authentic leader.
Part of the challenge in building authentic leadership is learning to leverage the clarity of your introspection. You can only be authentic if you understand who you truly are. Looking inside yourself and examining the makeup of your inner being enables you to function in a highly-grounded way, rather than operating from the innate biases of uninformed decision-making.
First and foremost, start by simply considering your disposition, tendencies, inclinations, and ways of being. Authentic leadership hinges on understanding the simple, native manner in which you show up in your life. One way to observe this is by examining key aspects of your inner being, often called Leader Type, which reflect a leader’s personality type. The leader personality type is an essential foundation of your personal makeup, critically influencing who you are as a leader and greatly shaping the effectiveness of your leadership. The ancient adage “know thyself” holds true as a crucial underpinning in leadership performance and a key tool to learn about your leadership type is through an assessment. We work with the Enneagram and recognize there are many very effective tools. We encourage leaders to create an environment in which people are given tacit permission to be themselves, allowing them to focus energy on their skills, rather than using that energy to fit into an alternate expectation. It also has the added benefit of aligning individuals with the culture of the overall group.
Susan, a social service executive, tests as a loyalist using the Enneagram personality typing system. She is committed, reliable, hard-working, responsible, trustworthy, and security-oriented. Though she is cautious and has problems with self-doubt, she’s quite methodical and also passionate about the value her work provides to our community. She evaluates how her projects will impact the organization’s clients, her own children and future generations, and is focused on building the Board, infrastructure, systems and program required to promote a better future. These qualities make her an exceptional Executive Director. She’s an excellent “troubleshooter” and can foresee problems and foster cooperation, but Susan—often running on stress—can also become defensive, evasive, and anxious.
She focuses heavily on process and has sense of urgency issues which limit her ability to be an exceptional leader of people and projects. After taking the Enneagram assessment, she was able to identify her strengths and deficiencies. By understanding her authentic type and building on her strengths, she has improved her leadership ability. To augment her strengths, she also needed to build the capacities where she showed limitations—one of which was the capacity to be patient under stress. She started by trying small experiments in leading with patience that were appropriate for her work environment. She documented these experiments in a journal that allowed her to reflect on what was blocking his success as well as what was working well.
Over time she began to receive very positive feedback that these experiments were working, and her ability to be empathetic evolved into an authentic skill. While this may never be her strongest skill, she has made great progress in understanding what others need from her and developing the skills to relate more effectively. Her success is attributed to both hers willingness to learn about herself and also to take corrective action to address a gap in her skills and comfort level.
Susan is hardly alone in needing to expand her leadership capacities. All leaders must adapt and expand the way they lead, whether it’s to accommodate growth in their organization, a new position or a change in the community’s expectations, increasing leadership capacities is a critical need for leaders.
The focus of graduate school programs, historically, have been on the value of hard skills and technical know-how, yet our experience shows the most important thing business, nonprofit management and public administration school graduates need to learn as new leaders is self-awareness and the resulting ability to accept feedback and reduce denial in their perceptions of themselves and their actions.
This speaks to the emerging deep recognition that leaders who are unable to manage their authentic personality quirks and biases, can derail the most progressive initiatives toward an organization’s sustainable success. The real goal is to understand who you are at your core, build on your strengths, and manage prejudice and idiosyncrasies.
Recommendations to improve your leadership authenticity using the focus on leader type:
- Take a personality type assessment;
- Learn about your type;
- Get input from others on what they think is most effective and least effective about your leadership style relative to your professional goals;
- Do a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) assessment to evaluate how your type maps to your work;
- Identify the strengths on which you can build, and the weaknesses and threats may interfere with your success;
- Create a development plan that includes defining daily practices to support development, including introspective routines;
- Seek assistance in accomplishing your plan and getting feedback from trusted others;
- Make the change you defined in your plan.
Your ability to use deep introspection relies on your development of, and a capacity for, self-understanding and self-awareness. Employing a deeper understanding of Leader Type for both yourself and others is a powerful tool to promote authentic leadership.
Now we turn to the lead others component of authentic leadership. What does “authentic” look like? For this discussion we turn to the developmental perspective model for guidance. Leading others means we need to be authentic in a way that meets others’ needs as well as our own. This rule would apply whether we are talking about all of our constituents including Board members staff, community leaders, donors, peers, or clients.
First, the term “developmental perspective” can be defined as “meaning making,” or how you make sense of experiences. This is important because the algorithm you use to make sense of the world influences your thoughts and actions. Incorporating an understanding of these perspectives as part of your interactions will inform your decisions about the blend of authentic and useful. This model of developmental perspectives can guide you in shaping your conversations with others in a way that allows you to be true to yourself yet frame them in a way that is helpful to others. When working with developmental perspective, it is important to remember there are not better or worse developmental perspectives—all are necessary to make an organization function optimally. There are, however, better and worse ways to interact based on the perspectives of those involved.
Now let’s turn to an example of how a manager applied her understanding of developmental perspectives to a difficult work situation. Maureen recently had a conversation with a client, Colleen, about the question of authenticity—specifically, “If I’m not transparent, am I authentic?” The basis for the question rose from Colleen’s dilemma that the more transparent she was with one of her colleagues, the greater the tension was between them. She found that with some people, less is more and with others more is appropriate. Colleen’s questions became: “Can I be authentic and yet edit how much I share? If I edit what I say or do, how much of my authenticity is lost? Are there models to help me determine what and how much to share and in which settings?”
As an analogy, throughout our personal lives, as we speak to our children or young adults, we adjust our conversations to make them age appropriate and we feel authentic when we adjust our language and complexity. So, can and should we adjust our conversations in the workplace with our colleagues in the same way to match their level of development (developmental perspective) or type preferences? Adjusting conversation to match our listener’s preferences is as appropriate and authentic as adjusting conversations to match the level of development of younger or less experienced people. Not only is it appropriate, it is required to optimize our effectiveness and theirs.
As leaders, we must be authentic with ourselves. It’s not helpful to hold secrets, or be unconscious about our own inner “algorithms” or the way we make sense of the world in how we make decisions, set our ground rules, determine our goals and values, and so on. This is the lead-self component which means knowing your type and the importance of introspection in getting to know yourself more fully.
The guiding principle is communication must be both authentic and useful. We must be authentic and true to ourselves and communicate what is useful to the other person in order for us to collectively accomplish our desired goals. Anything we communicate that pulls us away from our goals may be authentic, but it is not useful. A note of caution, we’re not suggesting withholding anything that may violate ethics; rather, we’re advocating the sharing of information that is helpful, not distracting or detrimental. In many cases, leaders find people struggle to understand them. In most of these cases, the leaders are experts in their fields and those around them do not share this expertise. What is most useful in these communications is to respectfully communicate to the listener at the level of detail they can understand.
The developmental perspective model is a complex model that allows you to augment your instincts within a structured framework, and get close enough to understand the communication that would be most effective. This model is quite robust and can be used in many different ways. Here are some recommendations to improve your ability to communicate authentically using the focus on developmental perspectives:
- Read an article on developmental perspectives to gain a general understanding of the framework and your level (see references for recommendations);
- Take the Maturity Assessment Profile (MAP) assessment created by Susanne Cook-Greuter to determine your developmental perspective profile;
- Evaluate those around you and create a chart of the primary developmental perspective of your key stakeholders;
- Create your own guidelines for how to best communicate with people at different developmental perspectives based on your reading and experience;
- Experiment with tailoring communications to perspectives that are appropriate for your audience;
- Get feedback from others on the impact these experiments to gauge if you are communicating effectively.
As an authentic leader, you must also have an ability to understand others through the developmental lens and relate to them using developmental perspective as an important filter for interactions. The best and most authentic leaders understand the role they play—and how effective they are in that role—is linked to everyone with whom they interact and work.
We define resilience as the ability to remain flexible and focused in the face of ongoing change. To be an authentic leader, we need to attend to four key elements: our physical wellbeing, our thinking, our emotional intelligence and sense of purpose, and our connection to people who support us. We must be honest with ourselves and others about what allows us to be resilient.
The other day Maureen met with a client who, for the first time in his life, is struggling with health challenges. This man works for a large national nonprofit where leaders pride themselves on their stamina, persistence, and always achieving results beyond what others could deliver—which may be part of the root of the problem. At forty-one years old, he had been blessed with great health until back problems forced him to take a leave of absence from work. He was given surgical and non-surgical treatment options to address his back condition. The non-surgical choices involved managing his stress and lifestyle as well as a daily routine of exercise and stretching. While the non-surgical option may sound easier than the surgical option, his underlying dilemma is facing the fact that he cannot live up to his own expectations of himself. He is young and suffering stress-related physical problems that, if he does not get under control, will likely result in chronic pain for years to come.
Now he must rethink who he can authentically be and face the reality of his physical limitations. Although we all will face this at some point in our lives and careers, most of us never really think about it until a dramatic event forces us to reassess the choices we make and how we’re living.
When we read about authentic leadership it seems so simple: be true to yourself. For this client, a primary condition of his authenticity is facing his physical limitations and being authentic with others about what he can and is willing to do to balance his work schedule with his personal health needs.
In coming to terms with his humanness, the client needs to figure out what it even means to be true to himself. Does he retain his stressful job in a field he loves, implementing a mission which he believes is his life’s work? What other avenue does he have to pursue his passion and make an impact on the world?
How you can put resilience to work for you to become more authentic?
Here are six questions to consider as indicators of your resilience as a leader:
- Am I taking the actions I need to take to remain physically healthy over the longer term?
- Do I manage my thinking throughout the day, every day (minimize negative self-talk; be gentle and kind in how I think about myself; express gratitude regularly; have reasonable expectations of myself and others, etc.)?
- Do I demonstrate strong emotional self-awareness and self-management?
- Do I have a sense of life purpose that inspires me daily and helps keep the less important annoyances in perspective?
- Do I have a spiritual practice that supports my well-being?
- Do I have a support system that supports and encourages me during good times and bad?
If you’ve answered no to any of the six questions on the list consider: what changes you can you make in the short term to authentically and honestly commit to and move toward greater resilience?
As a resilient leader, you are more able to respond to the ongoing challenges of your role with clear thinking and presence. This, in turn, allows you to continue to be authentic with yourself and others around you. It also allows you to promote resilience in your workgroup so you can ensure others are also able to perform at their highest capacity.
Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet—thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing—consistently. This builds trust, and followers love leaders they can trust.
— Lance Secretan
Situational analysis is the process by which a leader uses self-awareness and understanding of the organization to determine how to behave authentically and effectively. The leader analyzes with the intent of creating alignment between self and the organization—which can often be quite a balancing act. In some cases the leader does not have a clear sense of self, and in other situations the leader’s preference is not aligned with the organization’s culture or expectations.
I recently conducted a workshop with a client who used the situational analysis framework to address a very complex issue in a large nonprofit. The organization, like many, is trying to balance cutting an employee benefit in an effort to retain programming levels while minimizing the impact on employee morale, engagement, and organizational culture. This is a social service agency with a very strong belief in community, which includes caring for their employees. In a highly respected organization with a goal of maintaining low overhead, these benefits impact overall organizational performance and—if not managed carefully—can have a negative financial impact on the organization.
During the workshop, the entire leadership team answered a set of eight questions in four categories to encourage an open discussion to help them align their personal beliefs, personal behaviors, organizational culture, and organizational systems in addressing these issues and make a sound decision.
Using these questions as the foundation, the leadership team explored the pros and cons of their cost-cutting decision. In addition to addressing this specific complex issue, they also adopted this approach to addressing other issues.
So, what does this have to do with authentic leadership? Leaders must be self-aware and genuine. The first two sets of questions in the table help leaders discuss their personal values in an organizational setting and explore how those values impact tough decisions. Then they talk about how their values align with the behavior required to adopt the change. This approach is very valuable when balancing personal values and organizational requirements. Leaders often find their values in conflict with organizational expectations and they are compelled to choose between two undesirable options: violating their values, or making decisions that are opposed to the organization’s goals.
While there is no easy solution to the complex problems organizations are facing, we believe this approach to exploring challenges candidly and discussing personal beliefs and values, individual actions, organizational culture, and organizational systems creates shared support for decisions and provides a powerful platform for open dialogue about complex issues. Because it takes into account values along with fiscal accountability, it builds trust among leaders that the process is ethical. It also allows leaders an open forum to discuss differing points of view and, at the same time, develop a better understanding of others.
As authentic leaders in a complex environment, we are continually making difficult decisions. This approach to decision making can help think through the challenges and ask the questions that allow us to remain authentic and ethical, and still make the tough decisions required for the organization to survive and thrive. As the broader organization begins to understand and trust this process, they will also build the skills to be authentic in their leadership and build a culture of authenticity.
No one is authentic by imitating others. You must know yourself and develop your own authentic style. As authentic leaders, it seems we should be able to do what comes naturally; yet, authenticity is not as effective as responding to what your team needs from you. So, we return to an earlier question: Can I be authentic if I am tailoring my behavior to what others want or need from me? We submit you have a broad range of authentic behaviors, and it is possible to be both true to yourself while meeting your constituents’ needs
We work primarily with senior leaders and one might think, once you reach this level, the organization bends to you rather than you bending to it. This is far from the truth in many cases. One of the challenges and common themes facing many leaders we have coached is finding the balance between the “right” level of authority versus asking for input. For example, we worked with a CEO of an organization during the strategic planning process. As he was preparing the process for an off-site meeting to determine the organization’s path and plan a very significant transition, he began soliciting input from his team. What he heard was quite surprising to him. Some people were delighted to give input and wanted to be involved in most decisions. Others wanted him to set the strategy and tell them their team’s goals—they would determine team plans, but were uninterested in setting overall strategy— moreover, some people thought he was not doing his job if he needed too much input from them. Our client’s authentic desire was to get input from everyone and he learned if he did what was most natural to him, he wouldn’t be effective with some members of his team.
So, what are the steps to demonstrate authentic leadership behaviors?
- Know what you stand for and understand your values, as well as your leadership type and developmental perspective. By understanding your true values as well as your innate strengths and weaknesses you begin to set the baseline for what you hold true. For requests that do not impact your core values or your strengths, you have flexibility in how you respond. You may build skills or look to a teammate to augment you in specific areas.
- Understand the individual members of your teams’ values and type. We have talked about type and developmental perspective as two good tools to better understand your team. If you are working closely with someone, it will be helpful to understand their values. You can often gain a basic understanding by listening, observing things and knowing what someone does outside of work. Do they volunteer in the community outside your agency? Do they spend weekends with family? Do they take vacations that involve adventure? What do they read?
- Practice tailoring conversations and behaviors to others in a way that will be authentic to your values and at the same time be effective given the culture and organizational goals. You may even want to practice a few scenarios in preparation for tough negotiations or difficult discussions. By knowing your values and your innate type, you have a foundation that guides you on where to adjust and where to stay true to yourself.
Authentic leaders are true to themselves, they honor their personal values and commitments, and they also adapt to situations so they can provide the leadership needed by their staff. This staffs are likely to have a broad range of expectations of the leader—and having a one-size-fits-all “authentic” approach to all situations is suboptimal. The best leaders are able to honor their own style and still meet others where they are.
As with all changes in the way we process, perceive, and behave, there is no magic wand. You already know the value of persistence and commitment—it’s what has brought you this far already. Using the five elements of innovative leadership can support you in becoming an authentic and dynamic leader, and will support your ongoing leadership success.
Metcalf, Maureen, Palmer, Mark,(2011) Innovative Leadership Fieldbook, Field-Tested Integral Approaches to Developing Leaders, Transforming Organizations and Creating Sustainability, Integral Publishers.
Metcalf, Maureen, (2013) Innovative Leaders Guide to Transforming Organizations, Field-tested Integrative Approaches to Transforming Organizations and Creating Thrivability, Integral Publishers.
Metcalf, Maureen, Robbins, Dani, (2012) Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives – Field-Tested Processes and Worksheets for Innovating Leadership, Creating Sustainability, and Transforming Organizations, Integral Publishers, 2012
Doss, Henry, (3/19/2013) Fortune, Innovation: Five Keys to Educating the Next Generation of Leaders, Forbes.
About the Author
Maureen Metcalf, the founder and CEO of Metcalf & Associates, Inc., brings 30 years of business experience to support her clients’ leadership and organizational transformations. She is recognized as an innovative, principled leader who demonstrates operational skills coupled with the ability to analyze, develop, and implement successful strategies for development, profitability, growth and sustainability. She is also a highly acclaimed speaker and author.
Maureen is a strategic partner who combines intellectual rigor and discipline with an ability to translate theory into practice in her writing and client engagements. She designs and teaches MBA classes on Innovative Leadership and Transforming Organizations. She recently served on the Board of Trustees for Urbana University, now a Division of Franklin University.
Maureen has published several papers and articles and speaks regularly on Innovative Leadership, Resilience, and Organizational Transformation. She is the author of the Award Winning Innovative Leadership Workbook Series and the co-author of The Innovative Leadership Fieldbook – Winner 2012 International Book Award for Best Business Reference Book. Maureen was a finalist for the Tech Columbus Innovation Award – Women of the Year in Technology 2007 and Semi-Finalist in 2012. She is a certified coach through the Deep Coaching Institute.