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This is what authentic leadership looks like

Every day a range of inspirational leaders walk through our doors here at Pilotlight. They all share a commitment to improving the society we live in, while enhancing their leadership skills through collaboration.

Despite coming from a diverse range of sectors – from energy to care work – they all face the challenge of being able to effectively engage the teams they lead while earning their trust and respect.

But what does it take to be a truly great leader?

Academics Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones began the research for their book on authentic leadership by asking senior business people: ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’. This very simple question would be met with thoughtful silence. It’s a question that can still make people stop and think, even in today’s busy corporate world.

Since the 1960s, the idea of ‘authentic leadership’ has been slowly taking shape. It is based on the theory that to effectively engage a team, leaders must display qualities that promote trust. As Bill George, an expert in leadership and a Harvard professor, explains: "unless people build trust with their colleagues, they cannot gain legitimacy to lead, nor can they empower others".

So what are the qualities associated with authentic leadership? Although there is much debate, they can be broadly grouped into four areas:

  • Self-awareness: Authentic leaders should be confident of their own strengths, weaknesses and values
  • Transparency: They should actively share their thoughts and beliefs with their teams
  • Balanced viewpoints: They should acknowledge and consider the views of others, most importantly, team members
  • Ethical integrity: Authentic leaders should have a positive ethical code, which they stick by consistently

Sounds easy doesn’t it? But the reality is less simple. Luckily, there are some practical ways to help ensure that as a leader you win the trust of your teams through behaving authentically. 

It makes sense that it is only possible to be true to yourself when you know what that self is made of. So how can we become more certain about who exactly we are? There are a number of practical approaches:

Look back: Consider your life at key moments or events – positive or negative – that have defined it. How did you respond to them and what does that tell you about the type of person you are?

360° feedback: Implement a process of anonymous feedback from your team on you as a leader. Understanding how others see you is key to being able to improve on your weaknesses, and present yourself in a way that is not at odds with those around you.

Coaching: Consider working with a coach to explore your strengths, weaknesses, motivations, flaws and how you can best address them.

Review your values: Authentic leaders are trusted because their actions, as well as their words, consistently reflect a strong code of values. Be clear about what your values are, and live by them at work in the same way you would outside of the workplace.

Making these very personal reflections in such a methodical way might seem counter-intuitive. But going through this sort of review allows us to shape our authentic selves and, ultimately, our own leadership approach.

Peter Belk is membership and business development manager at Pilotlight, an organisation that matches skilled business leaders with charities