Monday, June 11, 2012

Authentic Leadership Development: Your Past, Present, and Future

There’s been a lot written about the concept of “authentic leadership”, that is, being a leader that is comes across as sincere, genuine, and real. Authentic leaders lead from the heart and are true to their values and principles. Authenticity builds trust, credibility, and inspires – all essential elements of great leadership.

Becoming a leader isn’t just about studying famous leaders or role models and then trying to emulate them. Nor is it just about assessing yourself against a competency model, and attacking your weak spots with a development plan.

While those can both be effective leadership development strategies, they won’t help you to be an authentic leader.

Becoming an authentic leader involves transformation. It’s not “doing” leadership, it’s figuring out who you are and who you want to be as a leader.

In order to become a truly authentic leader, you can use the same methodology used by Ebenezer Scrooge to discover the true meaning of Christmas: examine your past, present, and future leader.

Your past

In his book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, former Medronic CEO Bill George suggests looking back over your life to identify key moments that helped define who you are today. These key moments could be from early childhood, school, family, work, sports, military experience, religious, or people in your past life that had a significant impact on you. They could be high points or low points in your life. These key events and people taught you lessons – lessons that played a part in shaping your values, principals, and your identity.

In a recent UNH leadership development program, our instructor, Dr. Carole Barnett, had participants map out their leadership journeys visually on a “Leadership Journey Line” poster. She then had them present their stories in their small groups. It was moving and inspirational! Presenting your Journey Line to others can be a powerful way to learn about yourself and others.

Your Present

When you examine those critical incidents from your past, you begin to piece together patterns of lessons learned that help define what’s important to you today. These lessons define your values, principles, and motivations – in other words, you become self-aware.

Your values, principles, and motivations in turn drive your behaviors. They become your compass in life, serving as a conscious or unconscious decision making checklist to guide the choices you make. Behaviors then drive results.

Figuring out who you are and what’s important to you is hard work! In fact, for many, it can become a lifelong journey. In addition to the Journey Line exercise, other ways to facilitate self-awareness include:
- Formal values assessments (I’m certified in Hogan, but there are others)
- Reflection
- Feedback from others (to uncover blind spots)
- Journaling
- Therapy
- Gazing at your navel

Seriously, there’s no need to go completely off the deep end when it comes to self-awareness. You just need to end up with a handful of guiding values, principles, and motivations that when in doubt, guide your everyday decisions as a person and leader.

BTW, this list shouldn’t be kept a secret, only to be discovered with a secret values decoder ring by those around you. Great leaders share their defining stories, values, and principles with others. They become “teachable points of views” in explaining their vision, goals, behaviors and decisions. This is where authenticity comes from – through heartfelt self-disclosure.

Your Future

We all know that leaders need to be visionary, to have a compelling vision, are future focused, etc…. This is all true and important. However, great leaders also have a vision of the legacy they want to leave behind.

They don’t wait until their retirement to begin to reflect on their legacy. They start the process early on in their careers, and then live each day in a way that contributes to that legacy. This involves asking yourself what you want your lasting impact to be on your organization and the people you work with. “Starting with the end” will have an amazing impact your daily behaviors.

Try visualizing your retirement party in a positive way. What would you say in your speech? More importantly, what would you want others to be saying about you?

Authentic leadership development: look to your past to figure out what’s important to you today. Think about your future legacy and begin leading with that purpose today.


Anonymous said...

I find the use of such timelines and critical incidence work fantastic for both introspection, but also in helping with building my strategic storytelling portfolio (stories I can use to help mentor and teach).

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks. Good idea to have a "portfolio".

Ashok Vaishnav said...

The PAST is indeed the foundation of the authentic leadership, because the quality and strength of the edifice of your PRESENT leadership [principles and practice] is laid in the past. One (certainly) acquires required diverse knowledge to be able to understand the trends of the happenings around, skills to be able to acclimatise with the given environment and the energy of emotions to withstand the conflicting forces of the realities.
The PRESENT is when you conceptualise your (leadership) values on the basis of the PAST and implement them dynamically, individually and severally through the group(s); build a network of those who share your values, as well as of those who don’t but have expressed their reasons for not sharing your values [the transparency of this group can help you in knowing when you can seek them out] and when you see the end of the PRESENT in the horizon, commence planning for the FUTURE.
In my view, the authentic leaders create their FUTURE in the PRESENT only by enabling the peers, colleagues and followers to flourish, individually and collectively, while actively joining in implementing your values. It is more important that the values that you stand for are accepted and imbibed by them to ensure a reasonable chance for the spirit of these values to survive in the FUTURE. Else, the winds of change of the future and the different value systems of the relay-runners of the future are easily going to obliterate your contributions into the oblivion, no sooner you have turned your back.
The true test of the authenticity of the leadership lies in people spontaneously remembering values and acting in the same spirit whether or not you are around.

Dan McCarthy said...

Ashok -
Thanks! I like your last comment:
"The true test of the authenticity of the leadership lies in people spontaneously remembering values and acting in the same spirit whether or not you are around."

Brandon Jones said...


This is a great post! As a leader, you can’t be someone else. You must be yourself. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to refine yourself. As a leader, it is important to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and qualities that are neither strengths nor weaknesses. While you are trying to become your best self, you shouldn’t try to be someone else. If you try to be someone else you are not going to be as sincere because you will be trying to change yourself into someone else.

Sarah T said...

I'd love more notes on how to successfully facilitate asking leaders to draw their life line. E.g., do you have to help them distinguish between things that helped shape them as a leader vs as a person?


Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks or your comment.

Thanks, maybe in a future post. To answer your question, no, it's as a person, which shapes them as an authentic leader.

Robert Baulch said...

Great Article! I have worked with small business owners who just do not get it. They expect their employees to blindly follow when they outwardly appear to be genuine but are anything but. The worst of these owners do not value employees and constantly look for ways to ost control them rather than finding ways to motivate.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Tim G said...

Thanks Dan, great stuff here.

I believe (and have said) that "leadership should be an outward expression of inward qualities." (i.e. most so-called leaders with garbage on the inside won't be be great leaders via a facade)

Your post here provides a great roadmap for clarifying inward qualities and the relationship they have to outward behaviors.

Dan McCarthy said...

Tim -
Thanks! Leadership GIGO. (-:

Mary Jane Saras said...

One of the best leadership books that looks at how the past influences the present and what to do about it is, "Don't Bring It to Work" by Sylvia Lafair.
It has relevance and substance for today's leaders.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mary Jane-
Thanks, Sylvia writes some good stuff.

Akram said...

Absolutely agree with the statement: "Authentic leaders lead from the heart and are true to their values and principles".

One of my affirmations is:
"I always stay true to my values. I live my life according to my values and always make decisions based on my values".

That is called leadership!

Dan McCarthy said...

Akram -
Thanks, and good for you!