Truly Authentic Leadership
Authentic leaders know the "true north" of their moral compass and are prepared to stay the course despite challenges and disappointments. They are more concerned about serving others than they are about their own success or recognition. Which is not to say that authentic leaders are perfect. Every leader has weaknesses, and all are subject to human frailties and mistakes. Yet by acknowledging failings and admitting error, they connect with people and empower them to take risks.
How do we recognize authentic leaders? Usually, they demonstrate these five traits:
1. Pursuing their purpose with passion
2. Practicing solid values
3. Leading with their hearts as well as their heads
4. Establishing connected relationships
5. Demonstrating self-discipline
To be effective leaders of people, authentic leaders must first discover the purpose of their leadership. If they don't, they are at the mercy of their egos and narcissistic impulses. To discover their purpose, authentic leaders have to understand themselves and the passions that animate their life stories.
When Wendy Kopp was a senior at Princeton, she was saddened by the inequities in public education. It wasn't fair, she thought, that so many kids were deprived of a sound education. At a national conference she organized on education reform, an idea suddenly came to her: "Why doesn't America have a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teach in public schools?" Her question inspired her to found Teach For America, the most successful secondary educational program of the past 25 years.
After working a hundred hours a week for five years to build Teach For America, Kopp faced a crisis: declining applications for teaching positions, reductions in funding, and a blistering critique of her efforts in the educational journal Phi Beta Kappan. Stung, Kopp considered resigning or even shutting down her organization. Then she refocused on her purpose and redoubled her efforts. A decade later, Teach For America has grown 10-fold, to 4,400 teachers a year.
The values of authentic leaders are shaped by their personal beliefs and developed through introspection, consultation with others, and years of experience. The test of authentic leaders' values is not what they say but how they act under pressure. If leaders aren't true to the values they profess, the trust is broken and not easily regained.
Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen knows about staying true to his values under pressure. Allen built the Coast Guard around values, combined with clear decision rules that enable people to take action without having to check with higher levels of command. When Hurricane Katrina hit, officials at all levels of government argued about who was responsible while the Coast Guard simply swung into action, saving the lives of stranded victims.
Passion and compassion. Leading with heart may sound soft, as if authentic leaders can't make tough choices involving pain and loss; it is anything but. Leading with heart means having passion for your work, compassion for the people you serve, empathy for your teammates, and the courage to make tough calls.