Our team works with hundreds of companies each year, and it continues to surprise us how many leaders attempt to be one way at work, while their “true” personality emerges outside of work. Once a CEO reminded us, “Leadership is acting.” And it surprises us when these same leaders seem shocked or confused when their employees don’t trust them, don’t like them, and end up seeking out a company with more authentic leaders.

Authenticity has been explored throughout history, from Greek philosophers to the work of Shakespeare (“To thy own self be true.” -Polonius, Hamlet). Authentic leadership has been explored sporadically as part of modern management science, but found its highest levels of acceptance since Bill George’s 2003 book, Authentic Leadership.

But what is authentic leadership? What does it look like, and how can you work toward it?

While different theorists have different slants on the concept, most agree that:

1. Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine.

Authentic leaders are self-actualized individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses out of fear of looking weak. They also realize that being self-actualized is an endless journey, never complete.

2. Authentic leaders are mission driven and focused on results.

They are able to put the mission and the goals of the organization ahead of their own self-interest. They do the job in pursuit of results, not for their own power, money or ego.

3. Authentic leaders lead with their values.

First they understand their values and what are the most important to them. Next, they communicate these values clearly and without an attitude. They walk the talk and do so without flinching or compromising.

Four Things your leaders need

4. Authentic leaders lead with their hearts, not just their minds.

They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are “soft.” In fact communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but it’s done with empathy; directness without empathy is cruel.

5. Authentic leaders focus on the long-term.

A key tenet in Bill George’s model is the company leaders are focused on long-term shareholder value, not in just beating quarterly estimates. Just as George did as CEO of Medtronic, and as Bezos has done for years at Amazon, leaders realize that to nurture individuals and to nurture a company requires hard work and patience, but the approach pays large dividends over time.

If you’re looking to build authentic leaders, check out A Better Leader. This leadership training platform helps create alignment among your leadership team while teaching them the “soft skills” every company needs to truly care for employee needs.

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of continuous improvement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.