Authentic leadership: the six characteristics of an authentic leader

Bill George, former president and CEO of Medtronic, was once asked to describe the most important characteristics that a leader needed in his company. He said, “I can sum it up in one word: authenticity.”

Authenticity is essential and yet it is an aspect of leadership that is often overlooked.

Authentic leadership goes beyond what we often think of as the skills and knowledge required for leadership. Every leader must know how to influence, motivate, organize, manage, communicate effectively, etc. These traits, for the most part, can be acquired through a typical MBA program, as well as through on-the-job training. They have been endlessly described in the literature and are the focus of most leadership development programs.

Authentic leaders take these traits to another level. They are capable of influencing, motivating, etc., but they do not exercise these skills as strategies or techniques. Authentic leaders do not operate from an acquired leadership personality. They do not have one personality when they are in front of staff and another when they are alone or with friends.

Rather, authentic leaders know how to lead from a place beyond the intellectual mind. They operate from the heart and are always in line with their purpose in life. They are simply and genuinely themselves in all situations.

Leaders who embody authentic leadership can move seamlessly and effortlessly between two worlds. They feel comfortable and confident in the external world of their company, their employees and the market in general. They are equally comfortable in their own internal world, within their own being or spirit. Authentic leaders respond to both worlds as an integrated whole.

How can I specifically summarize what makes a leader authentic? I have observed that these leaders have six characteristics:

1. Authentic leaders are authentic.

They are true to themselves, however that can manifest. They feel at home in their own skin and are not afraid of being seen by others for who they are, including any deficiencies they may have.

2. Authentic leaders have found their purpose in life.

They find meaning in their work and other life activities, and they have a clear basis for making the decisions and choices that they make. Your personal and professional goals are aligned with your true nature.

3. Authentic leaders run their organization with purpose and vision.

They are not in business for purely financial reasons; rather, they and their organization exist to provide a service to society. Their vision comes first and they set goals to achieve that vision.

4. Authentic leaders know when to act and when to be patient. They intuitively know when action must be taken and when the most effective course is to wait. Everything in life and in business has its opportune moment. The key is to recognize and move with the flow.

5. Authentic leaders know that the outside world has no influence on their being.

Because they are in touch with their hearts, they are unaffected by changes and challenges in the external world. They remain calm and content, and do not care what others may think of them.

6. Authentic leaders are comfortable not being in control (and therefore in full control).

They do not need to impose their own control over situations. Because they are up-to-date and not resistant to change in their business and personal worlds, they actually feel more in control than if they were involved in a constant struggle for control.

Authentic leaders bring their spirit to their work. The Tao Te Ching expresses this beautifully:

If you want to be a great leader, you must learn to follow the Tao (the flow of life). Stop trying to control. Let go of fixed plans and concepts and the world will rule itself.

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