#305 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 11          November 1997

Authentic Leadership
by Kevin Cashman

Mr. Cashman is CEO of LeaderSource and the Executive to Leader Institute, an executive coaching consultancy in Minneapolis, Minn. (phone 612-375-9277; email info@leadersource.com).  This article is based on his forthcoming book, Leadership from the Inside Out (Executive Excellence, Provo, Utah, Spring 1998).

In organizations, our success as leaders is measured by the degree to which we’ve mastered the external environment and delivered results in the form of revenues, profits, new product breakthroughs, cost savings, or market share increases. 

External results, of course, are important.  But trying to define leadership by its external manifestations misses the core question:  What is the essence of leadership—the foundation that underlies external success and achievement?

After 20 years of wrestling with this question, I’ve come to this simple yet profound realization.  Leadership is not simply something we do.  It comes from somewhere inside us.  Leadership is a process, an intimate expression of who we are.  It’s our being in action.  At its deepest level, leadership is authentic self-expression that creates value.

Core Principles

Viewing leadership from this essential vantage point, we can see there are three core principles to guide us:

How authentic are we?

How deep and broad is our self-expression?

How much value are we creating?

The foundation of leadership is authenticity. How do we go about expressing ourselves more authentically?  I constantly challenge clients to ask, “Where is my leadership coming from?”  Do our actions originate from deep within ourselves, or are they coming from a more superficial, limited place?  Is our leadership arising from our character, the essence of who we are?  Or is it only coming from our persona, the external personality we’ve created to cope with life circumstances?

I remember working with an executive who believed, because he was at the top of the organization, he must always have all the answers, and that if he revealed any limitations others would perceive him as weak or inadequate.  Eventually, in his need to always be “right,” he made several errors and brought his organization to a crisis.  With our coaching, he used the crisis to break from his old pattern.  He faced up to his troops, acknowledged his mistakes, and asked for their help.  His co-workers were shocked, but they rushed to his support and enthusiastically resolved the crisis.

Commenting on his experience, he said, “I thought my power was in being right, but now I understand my power was in being real.” 

Leaders must expand their competencies from simply getting results to authentically adding value through synergy.  One of our clients, Jack, was an incredibly gifted executive; his talent and intelligence were apparent in everything he did. At early stages of his career his cognitive and intellectual skills helped him to excel in many challenging, complex assignments.  As his achievements advanced, Jack started to believe his own “press” and internalized the belief that he was the person who “made things happen.”  Gradually his relationships became strained and he couldn’t understand why. 

To help Jack break through his self-limiting view, we asked him to outline key events in his life over the past two weeks by focusing on the people who had made each event possible.  It didn’t take him long to recognize the web of interdependence that was supporting his success.  He became aware of initiatives for which he had taken credit and for which he now needed to acknowledge others.  He was beginning to genuinely bridge personal power with synergy power to enhance his contribution.

One of the most crucial development challenges for most leaders is moving from authentic self-expression to effectiveness by applying their personal power to create value.   As the chairman of a technology services firm shared with me, “Leadership is not about sitting in your office and dreaming up strategy—it’s about touching the organization through personal presence and relationship.” 

Five Touchstones

From observing authentic leaders, I would suggest there are Five Touchstones that are crucial to building the essential interpersonal bridge of leadership. 

  Touchstone One:  Know Yourself Authentically.

“Know thyself,” appears in the writings of Ovid, Cicero, and Socrates, in the sayings of the Seven Sages of Greece, on the entrance to the temple of Apollo, in Christian writings and in Eastern texts.  Chaucer, Browning, Pope, Montainge, de Saint-Exupéry, and Lao Tzu all express variations of the precept. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Maslow, Warren Bennis and Stephen Covey have carried on the tradition. 

If we want to be more effective with others, we first need to become more effective with ourselves.  Instead of focusing on finding the right partner (in business or friendships) seek to be the right partner.  Commit to authentically getting to know your total self.  Practice being what you wish others to become.

  Touchstone Two:  Listen Authentically.

Listening authentically is centered in the principle of psychological reciprocity:  to influence others, we must first be open to their influence.  Authentic listening is about being generous—listening with a giving attitude that seeks to bring forth the contribution in someone, versus

listening with our limiting assessments, opinions and judgments.  Authentic listening is about being open to the purpose and learning coming to us through the other person.

Authentic listening creates the platform for true synergy and team effectiveness.  Being open to valuing and attending to different perspectives from diverse sources results in a more complete understanding of issues and more effective decisions.  Authentic listening is the soul of synergy.

  Touchstone Three:  Express Authentically. 

Authentic expression is a delicate subject for many leaders.  I rarely meet leaders who admit readily that they lack some degree of integrity.  I also rarely meet leaders who have complete integrity in all parts of their lives.  Integrity goes far beyond telling the truth.  Integrity means total congruence between who we are and what we do.  It’s a formidable goal and most of us will spend our lifetime on the path to getting there.  How often have we held back something that we feel is important because we’re fearful of expressing it?  How often have we expressed something in a slightly more favorable light?  How often have we protected someone from what we consider a tough message?  How often have we feigned modesty for something we were really proud of?

Authentic expression is the true voice of the leader.  We speak from our character and it creates trust, synergy and connection with everyone around us.  Authentic expression is not about refining our presentation style—it’s deeper than that.  Some of the most authentic leaders I know stumble around a bit in their delivery, but the words come right from their hearts and experience.  You feel their conviction and the integral connection of who they are and what they say.  Expressing authentically is about straight talk that creates value.  It’s about sharing your real thoughts and feelings in a manner that opens up possibilities.

  Touchstone Four:  Appreciate Authentically.

As leaders we tend to do too much and appreciate too little.  Love is an extreme case of appreciation.  However, we’ve banned the “L” word from business.  That’s in spite of the fact that the “L” word is the substance that unifies teams, builds cultures, fosters commitment and bonds people in an organization. 

In lieu of this cultural taboo, let’s use the word “appreciation.”  Appreciation is one type of self-expression that creates value.  It energizes people and makes people want to exceed their goals and perceived limits.  Criticism, on the other hand, may get short-term results but usually doesn’t add long-term value. What it does add is fear and insecurity.

  Touchstone Five:  Serve Authentically.

Ultimately, a leader is not judged by how well he or she leads, but by how well he or she serves.  We serve our organization.  We serve our people.  We serve our customers.  We serve our marketplace.  We serve our community.  We serve our family.  We serve our relationships.

As leaders, when we move from control to service, we acknowledge that we’re not the sole origin of achievement.  This shift is an emotional and spiritual breakthrough.  Life flows through us and we simply play our role.  Our real job is to serve all the constituencies in our life and, in the process, to appreciate genuinely the fact the only through our interdependence with others do we create value.

Commit yourself to the lifelong process of authentically growing as a person in order to grow as a leader.  Leaders who stay connected to each of these five touchstones of authenticity not only enhance their own effectiveness as leaders, but improve all aspects of their lives.

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