What Makes an Authentic Leader?

By December 14, 2013Leadership

We listen to someone on stage. The message resonates yet we wonder if this person is really authentic.

We listen to an interview and the conversation seems authentic. Yet we wonder if a similar tenor of exchange happens in the privacy of their home or office.

We call individuals to be an authentic leader yet there may be as many definitions on what authenticity is as there are perspectives.

We hear someone bluster on and we grow tired. Yet being brash is who this person is. They are being authentic.

We hear of a leader really believing that working in an office is better for the organizational culture than working from home. We disagree. Yet this is the individual’s core belief. They are being authentic.

We want authentic leaders yet whose definition of authenticity applies?

What Makes an Authentic Leader?

With authenticity, we think:

  • Trustworthy
  • High integrity
  • Genuine

Each is a characteristic and each is important. Who defines authenticity though? With some research, I found a TED Conversation in which the following question was posed – What does it mean to be authentic? There were 108 responses! There are varying views on authenticity.

In a recent Forbes blog by Jan Bruce, she highlighted three things leaders must do to stay authentic. Each are important elements. Actions define authenticity. For me, there needs to be more to define what makes someone authentic. A group of diverse individuals could outline many other actions authentic leaders should take. There isn’t a set standard of actions for authentic leaders.

Characteristics are important to being authentic, just as actions are. Interpretations vary though. What one finds authentic, another may not. The key may be found in how authenticity is realized. Authenticity needs to be a part of our very being. Interpretations may come and go. Distractions will definitely come and go.

What needs to be steadfast is our authentic being. We need to have an authentic intelligence about who we are as a leader and person. We need to be smart in how we engage and maintain our authenticity.

What Makes an Authentic Leader? 4 Ideas for Authentic Leadership Intelligence

There is a smartness to authentic leaders. Smartness does not mean all-knowing; it does mean approaching your leadership craft with an authentic intelligence, knowing the impact of how you lead. To develop this intelligence, highlighted below are four ideas to consider in building your authentic leadership capabilities.

Embedded empathy. Authenticity needs to be other-centered. If it is all about an individual, then the self-centeredness will eventually harm many more than any potential good done. In other words, authenticity needs to connect to others, understand one another, and raise each other up to do more in better ways. Authenticity and active empathy need to be tied tightly together. Empathy raises a leader to consider what works best for more than just one.

Enabled community. Empathy leads to a leader’s embrace of community. How a leader enables a greater community raises their authenticity because it moves from a one-dimensional view to a multi-dimensional one. More than this, whatever action we take as a leader has a multiplier effect. The multiplier effect needs to be an enabled community working toward a higher-purposed mission or goal. An enabled community holds a leader accountable and keeps their focus on what is best for a broader base of people.

Empowering beliefs. Every leader has a certain set of beliefs, whether defined or not. To be an authentically intelligent leader, the beliefs should be empowering, not limiting. Beliefs pursued by a leader need to pass a test of:

  • Do they make others better?
  • Do they call on others to raise their game in how they work, live, and lead?

Authentic leaders embody a belief system that empowers all to look beyond themselves and foster a respect-filled and trust-filled environment.

Preventing harm. Another key authentic leader idea is to always say and do things to prevent harm. The old principle of “do no harm” is as valid as ever. Authentic leaders do not incite others to act in harmful ways. Authentic leaders keep environments safe for honest, meaningful interactions and build cultures to encourage problem-solving, innovation, and productive working relationships.

Questions to Check Authentic Leadership Intelligence

This post is a work-in-progress. It is one of the reasons they are called ideas rather than principles of authentic leadership intelligence. I do believe we need to be open to how we view a leader’s authenticity. I also believe we need to think through what enables us to claim to be an authentic leader. If we don’t understand what our authenticity consists of, then we will likely get off track and become inconsistent and inauthentic. Our trustworthiness is put at risk.

To begin to sort through the state of our authentic leadership intelligence, we may need to begin with these questions:

  1. What percentage of our inner circle thinks very differently from me? When they do offer differing ideas, do I really hear and understand them? What practices do I have in place to really understand others and make connections outside my comfort zone? (empathy)
  2. How do my actions enable other worthy actions? What am I doing to gain positive momentum in moving initiatives forward? (community)
  3. What are my core belief? Which of my core beliefs raise others up in taking positive action? How am I setting an example of leading with my beliefs? Be specific. (beliefs)
  4. How am I ensuring no harm is being inflicted on teams in undertaking their goals and objectives? How am I building a culture of innovation and problem-solving? (do no harm)

More than actions and characteristics, I believe we need to have an authentic being and intelligence on what makes us real, positive, consistent influencers. So, the question is clear: What makes someone an authentic leader?

Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz is one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business and highlighted as one of the Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the American Management Association. He also is the author of Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders. Jon serves as vice president of marketing at Corepoint Health. Outside of his professional life, Jon brings together a community to inspire Millennial leaders and close the gap between two generations of leaders.
Jon Mertz
Jon Mertz

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Join the discussion 26 Comments

  • […] Create a sense of community – To be an authentic leader, establish relationships with the people that you work with from the […]

  • Rainer Proksch says:

    Wonderful post! An authentic leader is one who always stands for what he has said. He should be able to stand for his beliefs no matter what the circumstances are. Such a leader would always be welcomed by people.

  • Terri Klass says:

    A remarkable post, Jon and a topic dear to my heart!

    One thing that I value about authentic leaders is their ability to be consistent in whatever they do. It is essential that a person’s actions are predictable to an extent and team members aren’t caught off guard.

    Authentic leaders need to stand up for who they are, what they believe and yet be open to other people’s points of view. Learning from others is key for leaders to lead authentically.

    Thanks Jon!

    • Jon M says:

      Agree completely, Terri. Knowing what we believe in but being open to others is essential. This prevents harm as well as helps us grow. Thank so much for jumping in and adding to the conversation! Jon

  • […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • Let's Grow Leaders says:

    After humility, authenticity is my second favorite subject. Authenticiy also involves the maturity to stay true to yourself while living in a world with differing views… http://letsgrowleaders.com/2013/08/13/becoming_authentic/

    • Jon M says:

      Great add, Karin. Staying true to yourself is essential. It goes to reflection and self-awareness, which are essential to staying on a good path. They point raised in your post link are key, too. Given there can be differing opinions on what is authentic, it is important to do a self-check as well as a community one. Appreciate your insights. Thanks! Jon

  • […] What Makes an Authentic Leader? by Jon Mertz. Key quote: “There is a smartness to authentic leaders. Smartness does not mean all-knowing; it does mean approaching your leadership craft with an authentic intelligence, knowing the impact of how you lead.” […]

  • What Makes an Authentic Leader? | Executive coa... says:

    […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • Samantha Hall says:

    Excellent post Jon! (as usual)

    This is a significant topic of interest for me and has been for some time. Last year, when I wrote my first post on the topic of leadership, I referenced Hitler and mentioned how he was acting fully in alignment with his beliefs and values, however damaging they were to society and the world. So in that context, people can be VERY authentic and yet leave a legacy of damaged relationships in their wake.

    The other point to authenticity and leadership is this: even Hitler had followers. Having a following, even a significant following, doesn’t indicate whether or not someone is a decent leader or has any integrity. It’s not uncommon for less then savory characters in the world to be the most popular. It’s not a measure of genuine authenticity, integrity, or decent leadership.

    Our own values and beliefs also play a part in who we may follow and/or interact with in the short term and long term. Although we may interact with people in more superficial and short terms ways based on common interests, topics, values, and beliefs, it will not generally result into deeper alliances without a good fit in core values, integrity, and trust that manifests over time. (tried and true)

    Love this post Jon. Much to consider and reflect on. Thanks for sharing. : )

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you for your comments and insights, Samantha. I always appreciate your thoughts. The role followers play in whether or not a leader is authentic is an interesting and important one. To be authentic, the several principles need to weave through each so folllowers also need to do no harm as well as be empathetic and connected to a higher purpose. Without these elements, authenticity becomes unaligned and off balance.

      Your added perspective gives me more to think about as it relates to what makes an authentic leader. I appreciate your time and additions to this. Thank you! Jon

  • […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • Alli Polin says:

    Wonderful post, Jon! I too believe that authentic leaders understand their impact. They may be brash, kind, quiet or aggressive but they embrace who they are and recognize that they are not alone in this world. More importantly, no leader can hurt, belittle or diminish the value of another human being and claim it’s all in the name of authenticity. That’s simply not leadership – or as you put it authentic leadership intelligence.

    I come to your blog on a regular basis because I leave thinking, wondering and looking within at my own definitions of leadership. I’m very grateful.

    • Jon M says:

      Really appreciate that, Alli. I always learn from your posts and insights and am grateful for our interactions. The “do no harm” principle is such an important one when it comes to authentic leadership. Authenticity may just come from within and then balanced with how the connections are made with others. This is a thought-in-progress so look forward to added perspectives. Thank you for your comments! Jon

  • […] What makes an authentic leader? More than actions and characteristics, leaders need to embrace an authentic intelligence about their leadership presence.  […]

  • KateNasser says:

    I echo Joy and LaRae’s kudos on this post Jon. Your blog posts really do express the thin difference (hence your Twitter name) that breeds success.

    Because of my people skills work, I especially focused on your phrase ’embedded empathy’. There is so much misunderstanding about empathy. I spend a great deal of time clarifying it with leaders, teams, and customer service reps.

    Great post with find detail with an implicit call to action.

    Very nice indeed,

    Kate Nasser, The People Skills Coach™

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you so much, Kate, and especially for your important work with different organizations. Empathy is often misunderstood yet it is central to making leaders more effective and engaging. All of this relates to understanding our authenticity as a leader. Appreciate your insights and feedback. Thanks! Jon

  • Joy Guthrie says:

    Loved your post, Jon. There were 2 chats on this very topic in the past week. I don’t think I heard a cohesive answer emerging on Authenticity in Leadership. Thanks for bringing it all together.

    • Jon M says:

      That is interesting, Joy. I should have caught those! This thought just hit me yesterday though. Getting a cohesive answer around authentic leadership may be challenging but there does need to a mindful, intelligent way to embrace the essence of it. Looking forward to the insight and apprecate your comment! Jon

  • LaRae Quy says:

    Loved this article, Jon. Authenticity is a word that is thrown around without much thought or intention as to what it means. No surprise that there were 108 definitions…all different, I am sure.

    Your list is great…it will helps folks really think deeper on what it means to be an authentic leader.

    • Jon M says:

      Thank you, LaRae. I believe we need to be attentive to what makes up our authenticity so look forward to the conversation and insights. Appreciate your feedback! Jon

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