Of all the principles supporting sustainable leadership, authenticity is one of the most important. It also can be one of the most challenging to practice. Despite this, few people realize it’s an area that even needs continuous attention. In more than three decades of interacting with thousands of leaders, I’ve yet to meet an executive for coaching who comes to me lamenting, “I’m having real trouble being authentic.” Yet if authenticity is so important, why don’t we recognize it as an issue within ourselves? The answer is both simple and profound: we are always authentic to our present state of development. We all behave in perfect alignment with our current level of emotional, psychological, and spiritual evolution. All our actions and relationships, as well as the quality and power of our leadership, accurately express the person we have become. Therefore, we conclude that we are “authentic,” because we are doing the best we can with the information, experience, competencies and traits that we have at this time.
There is a big catch, however. While we are authentic to our current state of development, we are inauthentic to our potential state of development. As Shakespeare wrote so eloquently in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” As humans and as leaders, we have an infinite ability to grow, to be and to become. Our horizons are unlimited. If there is an end-point to growing in self-awareness and practicing authenticity, I certainly have not seen it.
To deepen authenticity, to nourish leadership from the inside out, takes time, attention, courage and practice. In today’s world, the amount of distraction and busyness we all experience keeps us from undertaking the inward journey, and engaging in the deep pause and reflection required, to become more authentic human beings.
So what is authenticity? Based on our experience coaching thousands of leaders globally over the years, we define authenticity as the continuous process of building self-awareness of our whole person, as well as being transparent with others about our whole person, both strengths and limitations. As a result, more often than not, the authentic leader’s beliefs, values, principles, and behaviors tend to line up. Commonly referred to as “walking the talk,” authenticity also means being your talk at a very deep level.
The practice of authenticity is so much more than simply being true to ourselves, it also requires being true with others. Authenticity carries a much bigger duty to speak up, shake up and to light up the darkness and to “shake the spiritual tree” as author and global thought leader Ken Wilber puts it. “You must let the radical realization rumble through your veins and rattle those around you” as Wilber elaborates. Authenticity is rarely complacent but rather clear with what is important and what needs to change; it is not attracted to convention but much more compelled to courageous conviction.
Let’s take a moment to learn some practices from two global CEOs very advanced in this journey to authenticity: Howard Schultz and David MacLennan. When asked by Charlie Rose, “What’s the most important quality today for leadership?” Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks at the time, replied, “To display vulnerability.” In his book Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz says, “Although they can hire executives with many talents and skills, many CEOs discover that what they lack most is a reliable sounding board. They don’t want to show vulnerability to those who report to them.” He advises, “Don’t be afraid to expose your vulnerabilities. Admit you don’t know what you don’t know. When you acknowledge your weaknesses and ask for advice, you’ll be surprised how much others will help.”
David MacLennan, Chairman and CEO of Cargill, one of the world’s largest private companies with $107 billion in annual revenue, shared this perspective with me on authenticity: “A critical part of transparency and a real test of leadership authenticity is having people come up to you and say, “Hey this is what I think is wrong. Were you aware of this?” as opposed to, “Look out. There’s the CEO. I better not speak up.” Your real ‘authenticity audit’ is the degree to which people are open to you, because you have been open, vulnerable and honest with them.”
When people know you will deeply and authentically listen to them, people will be authentic and honest with you. Deepening our conversation, I asked David to elaborate his key authenticity practices and he impressively outlined 10:
1. Be comfortable in your own skin; don’t ever try to fake realness.
2. Never take yourself too seriously; it is not usually about you.
3. Share stories of personal failure, vulnerability, and learning. Authenticity shows the full picture of who you are.
4. Don’t believe your own press and/or focus too much on your accomplishments. Remember: you really are the ‘kid inside’ just trying to do your best.
5. Surround yourself with people who will give you feedback. I was once told, “You look tired and you need a haircut.” Authenticity is both a pragmatic and profound gift.
6. Earn the right to be trusted by being courageously truthful. Authenticity multiplies trust with all those it touches.
7. Encourage diversity and encourage everyone to bring the best in themselves to work. Authenticity is inclusive.
8. Narrow the gap between your work self and your private/home self. Authenticity is one person everywhere, in all situations.
9. Stay humble to learn and stay confident to serve. Authentic leaders know when to be bold, and when to be a learner.
10. Dedicate yourself to purpose-driven service. Authenticity is all about service to all levels, to all stakeholders and in all moments of leadership.
Recently, to his great credit, David put some of these principles into courageous action in a very public way. Recently, when most CEOs were still very cautious to speak their minds about the new U.S. Administration’s positions on trade and immigration, David spoke up strongly on the issues. He asserted, “We have to turn the tide on some of the current themes that we are seeing. Geopolitics are shifting and we are standing at a crossroads of some really important issues for business and society.” Elaborating more on trade he said, “We need to be very mindful of the effect on jobs and the impact of trade on jobs in local communities but it’s not an all-or-nothing approach. If the U.S. steps back from our leadership role in a global economy, I can guarantee you other countries will very, very quickly fill the gap.”
In the end, the core practice of authenticity is courageously standing for, and expressing our most heartfelt principles … with a touch of humility thrown in. The most authentic world-class leaders with whom I get the privilege to work, balance exceedingly high self-confidence with exceptionally deep humility. Demonstrating this at the end of our conversation, David reflected, “Cargill is so much bigger than I am. I am the ninth CEO in a 150-year history. One day I’ll be the next ‘oil painting on the wall’ that people barely remember. Authenticity is knowing that life, leadership and the organization are all so much bigger and so much more important than I am.”