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Do you want to be a more authentic leader? Here's how.

As human beings, when we join a new social group or team, we wonder about the hidden rules and team norms. We put our best selves forward, so we will be accepted.
It often means we hide parts of our personality that we feel will be rejected by our team, in order to fit in. 
Unintentionally, we act in ways that are not congruent with who we are or who we say we are. It can often mean that we are seen as fake or inauthentic which can alienate our followers and damage our leadership.
The good news is that we don't have to pretend to be something that we are not.
According to a MIT study, the majority of self-aware CEOs have learnt to identify their “outlier tendencies” and adjusted their behaviour in order to change the way they were perceived.
This behavioural adjustment wasn't about overhauling their entire personality. Instead, it was being themselves but “with more skill.” The leaders considered the environmental context they found themselves in and adjusted their personality traits to suit (for example, reducing their impatience or need for too much detail.) They lessened or removed the behaviours that they realised worked against them and they amplified behaviours that improved their relations with others.
In other words, they learnt to read the room and bring the best version of themselves into the mix.
Here are four steps to do this.

1. Know Thyself

In a study of 17,000 individuals worldwide, Hay Group Research found that 19 percent of female executives interviewed exhibited self-awareness as compared to 4 percent of their male counterparts.
Self-awareness is not often considered to be a valuable quality of leaders, yet it is crucial for a healthy bottom line. In a study of the stock performance of 486 publicly traded companies, Korn/Ferry International found that companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.
Self-awareness is about knowing our personal idiosyncrasies and embracing them. It means knowing that we have certain characteristics that are the exception, not the norm. 
For example, a leader I once coached was extremely smart and a quick learner. He assumed everyone was like that, so in his communication to others, he unintentionally missed important details because he thought people understood the complex operating environment in the same way he did. He had to learn that he absorbed information at a much faster rate. This meant he needed to provide more detail when he was conveying contextual information to others. Even if it meant slowing down and checking in with people to see if they understood.
Without self-awareness, leaders will find that others misunderstand them or get upset by certain behaviours. Knowing our blindspots and how it triggers behaviours in others helps us to more appropriately adapt to the needs of the people around us.

2. Lead from "Inside out" to "Outside In"


As Kevin Cashman discusses in Leadership from the Inside Out, leadership isn't something we do. It comes from a deeper reality within us; it comes from our values, experiences, principles and essence. Leadership is an expression of who we are. We lead by virtue of who we are.

While that is certainly true to some extent, blindly leading with our values and beliefs and expecting other people to follow us is a tad narcissistic. After all, self-awareness is really about bridging the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us.

We have to meet people where they are.

Working both inside out, followed by outside in, then striving to work both simultaneously is a far more effective leadership approach.

If you are leading a new team, working in a new country or company, then it's important to spend time on the outside. Staying humble, willing to listen and being open to learning.

Take the example of Ria Iyengar, an account director at Cossette. In a Fast Company interview, she discussed how she had to relearn how to conduct business and lead teams.

Finding herself in unfamiliar territory - being new in a different industry, working in a new country with new customs and cultures required being an outside leader. 

This meant taking the time to observe and understand the differences, in order to identify what's important to integrate and where she needed to flex her own style in the everyday interactions with her team. The end goal was to no longer be seen as an outsider.

As Ria Iyengar said "I’ve learned adaptability does not need to come at the cost of being your authentic self. It’s possible to strike a balance when you are confident in who you are but also strive to be empathetic and sensitive to the differences on your team. Within this construct, it is possible to achieve the ideal—where your team sees you as one of their own but respects that you bring a different and valuable perspective."

3. Highlight (Don't Hide) your Differences

In the HBR article, "Why Should Anyone be Led by you?", the authors contend that the most important quality of inspirational leaders is that they capitalise on what’s unique about themselves. Interestingly, they found the most effective leaders deliberately use differences to keep a social distance. Even as they are drawing their followers close to them, inspirational leaders signal their separateness.

These differences might be a distinctive dress style or physical appearance. Of course, back when the article was written (in the year 2000), the world was a very different place. Today, we are somewhat more accepting of colour, being LGBTQIA+ or neurodiverse. Thankfully, these differentiators can be more openly owned without as much negative flack as in days gone by.

Other differentiators might be particular qualities such as a Star Trek obsession, deep expertise in an unusual topic or an insane ability to beatbox. 

There are lots of different ways a leader can stand out as being different. What's most important is that they communicate it and not ignore it. 

Take comedians. They call out what might be perceived as being different about them and use it to make people laugh with them and not against them. It's a perfect way to disarm an audience that might get hung up on what's not being said. Early in their act, they will make a joke about their height, their age, dyslexia, disability, hair style or even their level of attractiveness (or not).

Instead of allowing your differences to make you feel more separate from others, you can use it to motivate others to perform better. After all, we instinctively know that followers will push themselves if their leader is just a little aloof. Take the time to be fully aware of what makes you unique in a way that is in service to your team. This could be selecting a weakness that is actually a strength. An example could be being overly passionate about great customer service and explaining how this plays out.

Just make sure that you don't frame your uniqueness from the perspective of insecurity, being disingenuous or going overboard with your differentiation. You want to create some distance, but not too much, so that you don't lose the ability to identify and care about your audience. Or even worse, if it repels them.

4. Admit your Weaknesses

One of the common beliefs about authenticity is that leaders must openly reveal their weaknesses. These are the behaviours or skills that can potentially cause issues in a workplace, if you don't let people know about them.

Dr Jeff Polzer, a Harvard professor says “People tend to think of vulnerability in a touchy-feely way, but that’s not happening. It’s about sending a really clear messages that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that behaviour becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other. If you don’t have that vulnerable moment, people will cover up their weaknesses and their insecurities manifest themselves in tasks."

Employees love it when their leader admits a flaw - it makes them seem more human and sends a signal that employees can be themselves.
What's important is that we are selective in sharing our shortcomings. Don't go exposing flaws that could jeopardise your credibility in your role. It's not a good look for a CFO to say they struggle with maths.
Choose a flaw in service of the team. You don't have to disclose everything you feel is a shortcoming. This could be a weakness such as an inability to work slowly, absorb details in one sitting or be in a good mood on a Monday morning.
Use vulnerability to create the safe space for people to share information. It creates trust and allows others to fess up to their own idiosyncrasies which they might typically hide.
After all, that's the secret behind high performing teams, As Marcus Buckingham, a world renowned researcher and best selling author says, "Teams make a home for idiosyncrasy. In a team, each person’s unique loves and loathings can be combined with those of others to create something greater than any one person could achieve on their own." 

Leading with Authenticity

Today, being an authentic leader is more complex than in days gone by. It requires taking the time to truly know who you are as a leader - what makes you unique, what traits could derail you and what your team or organisation requires from you.
It's about reflecting on which personality traits you can leverage and those you are best to leave on the sidelines. Only getting them out, if it's appropriate. After all, there are times when impatience can work to push your team and there are times when it annoys people and slows them down.
Thinking about it consciously is the key. Otherwise, you might be at the whim of behaviours that come out when you are stressed, tired or triggered. Not only could that undo your leadership, but it could result in bad habits over time.

The trick is to ensure we are leading with the personality traits that work for us, our teams and our companies - and not against us. Learn to be who you are more intentionally. Know when it's important to invoke a sidelined personality trait or drop it all together. Work on reducing poor behaviours that are toxic to others. Don't let your emotions or behaviours run you - learn to run yourself.

The good news is that you don't have to eliminate parts of who you are or constrain yourself unnecessarily. It just means being more present to who you really are and more skilful in how you show up.  

If you want some help to get you started, download my complimentary Trusted Leader Self- Assessment.New Call-to-action