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.