The Leadership Series #7 | ‘Great leaders are authentic”

In the simplest terms authenticity is when people are who they are. We all dislike fake people. And most of us have this innate ability to ‘sense’ that some people are pretending. Think of the salesman that is trying too hard to impress upon you his merchandize. Or think of that famous beauty contestant who proclaims on stage “I believe in eliminating poverty”. We all intrinsically have the ability to detect people who are faking it. But why do people fake it in the first place?

Most people are afraid of what people think of them. This is the root cause of why we would like to portray something we are not. Most of us struggle hard to build up an ‘image in society’ and we struggle hard all our lives to protect it. For most of us, this self-image is the source of our identity. It defines us – or so we think. And anybody who challenges this assumption, becomes our enemy. We actively seek out people who affirm this identity that we have assumed.

But why, in the first place, do we adopt this identity? Insecurity. We are told, since a child, that we are not good enough. That we need to strive to become better and greater. This builds in us a deep sense of inadequacy, which we hide from the world at all costs. We are ashamed of it and we actively try to hide it. The easiest way to spot it is when somebody displays an overtly strong trait. Think of someone who wants to show off that he is masculine – ripped muscles and those things. On a reasonable level, we all want to be healthy. But some of us take this to a whole new level and want to “show off our muscles”. This is an attention grabbing stunt, whereby we want to hide our insecurities of being unrecognized or constantly put down, and mask it by building an external image. Another example, is someone who is a workaholic. Why would anyone want to work until they burn out? Because of this self-image that wants to “prove to the world” that they are indeed worthy and successful. The people with the largest egos are often the most insecure.

What does all this have to do with leadership? Simple – great leaders are authentic. This means that they are who they are. They are not trying to impress upon anyone a false self-image. They talk casually about their strengths and jocundly about their flaws. They know that they are greater than their strengths and weaknesses. They derive their identity from how they bring themself into an activity as opposed to deriving it externally – from people, accolades, awards and those sort of things. They derive great satisfaction in setting goals and working on them for the sake of doing the activity. The activity brings great joy to such great leaders. They love the challenge of strategizing a business idea, they love designing a product, they love building teams and mentoring people and so on. Yes results matter – but only so far as to provide feedback on improving the process and not on the recognition and fame that comes along with success.

In order to be authentic, we must drop this self-image and strive to be who we are. This means being comfortable with our strengths and our weaknesses. It is perfectly okay to be open about one’s flaws. In fact, recognizing one’s flaws will help us take great care when planning projects. We will ensure that we take help from the expert in the area where we are most flawed. Awareness of our flaws, helps overcome them. In order to be okay with having flaws, we need to know what our vision in life is. We need to be deeply connected to ourselves (see the previous post on this topic). Knowing who we are. Knowing our aspirations, helps us see beyond the limited self-image that the ego so easily likes to assume. We become ourselves in this endeavour.

Once we stop trying to be someone else, our actions and our communication begin to align with who we are. When these four things align – vision, intentions, communication and actions, our demeanour changes. We exude this deep sense of confident presence. Think of Warren Buffett. He isn’t trying to please anyone. He is simply himself. There is a great power in such people. The power of authenticity. This hasn’t come because he is rich or successful. He is rich and successful because of this trait. We often confuse causes and effects. Good character results in success and never does success result in good character.

Authenticity is transformational in organizations. Once the leader displays this, people aren’t afraid to be who they are. Our employees are okay to make mistakes and admit it openly. Diverse strengths are celebrated openly and genuinely. This engenders an atmosphere where people can be themselves. And when people are comfortable (and not lazy!), they begin to get creative and feel at ease at what they do. This is the kind of work environment we all yearn for. This makes the company great.

Get authentic. And watch the transformation in yourself and in the people around you.

A male Blackbuck. Blackbuck National Park. 2019

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