Authentic leadership does not come from title, social stature, or the size of one’s paycheck but rather from how you live and the impact you make around you.
Harvard Business School professor, former Medtronic CEO, and author Bill George popularized the concept of “authentic leadership” in his 2003 best-selling book Authentic Leadership, which was developed further in his later book True North. “First you will have to understand yourself, because the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself. Second, to be an effective leader, you must take responsibility for your own development,” writes George.
The word “authenticity” comes from the Greek root authentikos, meaning “original, genuine, principal.” Genuine leaders are not just the usual suspects we conjure up–the business chieftains, historic figures, and mega technology innovators. They are all around us, I believe. Each one of us is born to make an authentic contribution. Truly authentic leaders lead with their soul. Along with fearless passion and courage, they possess relentless mental discipline.
To be authentic one must be “awake,” meaning you have the ability to understand who you are, what you want to be, and how you want to fit in the world. From Aristotle to Buddha, Rumi to Steve Jobs, Kahlil Gibran to Paulo Coelho, many revered thinkers and talents have said that the path to an authentic journey is to know thyself, guided by an inner voice.
But creating our thoughts, making the journey, ignoring the skeptics, and dusting ourselves off every time we fall requires disciplining our inner energy and drive. Often that energy solely comes from within.
Here are a few suggestions to foster inner energy:
Intend your destiny: Destiny results from “intention”–our spiritual will; something that drives us to do what seems impossible. It nurtures us with hope in our darkest moments, enables us to dream of better days, and resides in a place where we are destined to find our fulfillment. We need to intend to “go somewhere” and make a difference.
Be in the moment: In college, at my janitorial graveyard shift, I had a supervisor who used to remind me every night to “be kind to the floor, buff her carefully–and then see how well she shines.” At those particular moments, nothing else mattered–only the shine on the buffed floor. It taught me to lose myself completely in an utterly mundane task. Being in the moment allows us to escape from adversity and conserve our inner energy.
Develop rituals: Mastering an authentic craft comes from uncompromising daily practice. Developing the discipline to practice the same thing over and over again requires ritualistic hard work. Observe a musician, athlete, or better yet a Japanese Zen monk who recreates his sand garden every morning. Rituals teach us to be disciplined, deliberate, and meditative. Create rituals for daily life that provide a path to practice mastery with positive energy.
Authentic leaders of any kind drive change. Change often involves traveling uncharted territories, challenging conventional paths, and ignoring the traditional need for safety and comfort. This inherently invokes pain, suffering, and disappointments. Accepting and growing through our pain is part of our personal growth. This is anything but easy. Like any other skill, learning to suffer well requires conscious practice and learning.
Here are some fundamentals to consider:
Keep an eye on the bigger picture: A new day always comes. A new door always opens. It is important to recognize that the future is full of promise. Meeting our goals requires constantly imagining and crafting our journey despite the present situation. It is okay not to have all answers right away. They will come. We can’t control everything, however, we can control ourselves: how we choose to respond, our own attitudes, how we let go, and our outlook–moving forward by keeping our eyes on the bigger picture.
Learn from bad times: In bad times it’s easy to think that fate is unkind and unfair in its approach to teaching us harsh lessons. It hurts, but sadly it is often only through hardship that we discover our inner strengths and capabilities. Despite our darkest moments, it is our duty to stay connected to our core intention. We can leverage newfound strengths and capabilities to proceed with complete commitment, believing in our own intuition and ourselves.
Spend time with people who are uplifting: The people we surround ourselves with make the difference between failure and success. It’s not only whom we surround ourselves with that matters, but also how we interact with them that make the difference. It’s important to be reminded of the people who believe in and support us and to cultivate those relationships. Spending time with people who make you stronger requires intentional effort, and is a key component in being able to move forward.
Equally important is to avoid people who bring us down, waste our time, take us backward, and have no interest in our suffering. A close friend constantly reminds me to “get rid of toxic people from your daily life.” While we cannot always avoid them, at a minimum we can choose to not allow them to weaken us.
Authentic leaders reach their highest potential by taking risks that are consistent with their ethos and values. They lead by constantly standing on an uncomfortable ledge.
Leading from the ledge requires:
Excellence, not perfection: We live in a diverse and imperfect world. Every single one of us is a work in progress. In many ways, perfection implies something has come to its end. Authentic leaders commit themselves to excellence in everything they do. They are constantly pushing the envelope and raising their standards. And they have the wisdom to know the difference between excellence and perfection.
Flexibility: Lao Tzu said, “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: What is soft is strong.”
Our ability to effectively survive, thrive, and lead comes from flexibly riding out our ups and downs. An authentic journey does not always come from blasting through rocks and impediments, rather from having the faith, resilience, and adaptability to cope with the harsh realities of life.