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Fostering Authenticity: Leading with Your True Self

By Andre J. Wicks, President of Everyday Principal, author of What Is Standing in the Way, Consultant and Leadership Coach, and Principal of Carla O. Peperzak Middle School.


Welcome back, leaders, to our summer series on personal leadership development. So far, we have explored the transformative power of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Today, we turn to a topic that is intrinsically connected to these themes: authenticity.


Authenticity in leadership means being genuine and true to your values, beliefs, and personality. It's about leading with integrity and being consistent in your words and actions. For school principals, superintendents, and leaders in the private sector, practicing authenticity is not just a moral stance; it’s a strategic advantage. It builds trust, fosters loyalty, and creates a positive culture where people feel valued and understood.


In this blog, we will dive deep into what it means to be an authentic leader and provide practical steps to help you practice authenticity in your leadership. We will draw connections to our previous discussions on self-awareness and emotional intelligence, as these elements are foundational to authentic leadership.



Why Authenticity Matters

Authenticity resonates because it is real. In a world where leaders are often scrutinized and judged, being authentic can set you apart. When people perceive you as genuine, they are more likely to trust you, follow your lead, and stay committed to your vision. This is true whether you are leading a school, a district, or a company.


The Trust Factor

Trust is the bedrock of effective leadership. As Stephen M.R. Covey notes in The Speed of Trust, “trust is the one thing that changes everything” in leadership. Authentic leaders build trust by being transparent and consistent. They don’t put on a façade to impress others; instead, they let their true selves shine through. This transparency fosters a culture where others feel safe to be themselves and express their ideas and concerns openly.

Practical Application: Reflect on how you can increase transparency in your leadership. Share your thoughts and reasoning behind decisions with your team. Be consistent in your actions and follow through on your commitments. This consistency reinforces your authenticity and strengthens trust.


Cultivating Loyalty and Engagement

Authentic leaders inspire loyalty and engagement. When people see that you are committed to your values and genuinely care about their well-being, they are more likely to feel loyal to you and engaged in their work. This is particularly important in educational settings where fostering a sense of community and belonging is crucial.


Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, discusses how the most successful leaders are those who combine professional will with personal humility. These leaders, who stay true to their core values and lead with integrity, cultivate a deep sense of loyalty and commitment among their teams.

Practical Application: Regularly communicate your core values and show how they guide your decisions and actions. Recognize and appreciate the contributions of your team members and show genuine concern for their personal and professional growth. This approach fosters a sense of belonging and motivates others to engage deeply with their work.


Enhancing Personal Fulfillment

Practicing authenticity is not just about benefiting others; it’s also about enhancing your own sense of fulfillment and well-being. Leading in a way that aligns with your true self can reduce stress and increase your satisfaction with your role. When you lead authentically, you don’t have to constantly manage a persona or live up to others' expectations. Instead, you can focus on being the best version of yourself.


Bill George, in True North, emphasizes that authentic leadership comes from knowing and acting on your personal values and passions. This alignment brings a deep sense of fulfillment and purpose to your leadership journey.

Practical Application: Take time to reflect on your personal values and passions. Consider how they align with your current leadership practices. Make adjustments where necessary to ensure that your leadership style reflects your true self. This alignment will bring more joy and satisfaction to your leadership role.


The Pillars of Authentic Leadership

Practicing authenticity involves several key elements: self-awareness, consistency, and relational transparency. Let’s explore how these pillars support authentic leadership and how you can cultivate them in your own practice.


Self-Awareness

As we discussed in our post on cultivating self-awareness, understanding your strengths, weaknesses, values, and motivations is crucial for authentic leadership. Self-awareness allows you to lead from a place of confidence and integrity. It helps you understand how your actions and decisions align with your core values.

Practical Application: Engage in regular self-reflection. This could be through journaling, meditation, or seeking feedback from trusted colleagues. Ask yourself questions like, “What are my core values?” and “How do my actions reflect these values?” This ongoing reflection will deepen your self-awareness and strengthen your authenticity.


Consistency

Authentic leaders are consistent in their words and actions. They don’t change their behavior to fit different situations or audiences. Instead, they stay true to their values and principles, regardless of external pressures.

Practical Application: Evaluate how consistent you are in your leadership. Do your actions align with your stated values? Are you the same person in private as you are in public? Strive for consistency by aligning your behavior with your core beliefs and be mindful of situations where you might be tempted to compromise your authenticity.


Relational Transparency

Being authentic means being open and honest in your interactions with others. It involves sharing your thoughts and feelings and being willing to listen to and understand others’ perspectives. This relational transparency fosters trust and deeper connections within your team.

Practical Application: Practice openness in your communication. Share your reasoning behind decisions and be honest about your challenges and uncertainties. Encourage others to do the same by creating a safe space for open dialogue. This transparency will strengthen your relationships and enhance your team’s cohesion and effectiveness.


Overcoming Challenges to Authenticity

Practicing authenticity can be challenging, especially in environments where there is pressure to conform or present a certain image. Here are some strategies to help you navigate these challenges and stay true to yourself.


Navigating External Expectations

As a leader, you may face expectations from various stakeholders—whether they are school boards, parents, employees, or shareholders. Balancing these expectations while staying true to your values can be difficult.

Practical Application: Clarify your core values and use them as a guide when making decisions and navigating external pressures. Communicate openly with stakeholders about your values and how they inform your decisions. This clarity and transparency will help align expectations and reduce the pressure to conform to external demands.


Managing Self-Doubt

Leading with authenticity requires confidence in who you are and what you stand for. However, self-doubt can undermine this confidence and make it difficult to stay authentic.

Practical Application: Build your confidence by focusing on your strengths and successes. Seek feedback from trusted colleagues and mentors to gain a balanced perspective on your abilities. Remember, being authentic doesn’t mean being perfect. It means being real and true to yourself, even when you feel uncertain.


Balancing Vulnerability and Strength

As we discussed in our post on embracing vulnerability, being open and honest about your challenges and uncertainties is a key aspect of authenticity. However, finding the right balance between vulnerability and strength can be challenging.

Practical Application: Use your judgment to determine how much to share and in what context. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean sharing everything; it means being open and honest in a way that is appropriate and constructive. Balance vulnerability with strength by being open about your challenges while also demonstrating confidence in your ability to navigate them.


Authenticity in Action: Lessons from Great Business Leaders

To illustrate the universal power of authenticity, let’s look at some examples of leaders outside the K12 sector who have practiced authenticity in their leadership journeys.



Angela Ahrendts: Leading with Heart at Burberry

Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry and Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple, is known for her authentic leadership style. At Burberry, she led a remarkable turnaround by staying true to her values of openness, empathy, and integrity. Ahrendts focused on building a strong company culture and connecting deeply with her team. Her authenticity and commitment to her values earned her the trust and loyalty of her employees, driving Burberry’s success during her tenure.

Key Insight: Ahrendts’ leadership demonstrates how authenticity can drive business success by fostering a strong, values-driven culture. Her focus on connection and empathy highlights the importance of relational transparency in authentic leadership.


Howard Schultz: Creating a Mission-Driven Company at Starbucks

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, built the company into a global brand by leading with authenticity. Schultz’s leadership was guided by his personal values of community, connection, and social responsibility. He consistently communicated these values and aligned Starbucks’ mission with them. Schultz’s authenticity not only shaped Starbucks’ culture but also attracted loyal customers and employees who resonated with the company’s mission.

Key Insight: Schultz’s leadership shows how aligning your actions with your values can create a strong, mission-driven organization. His commitment to his core beliefs and consistent communication of these values exemplifies the power of authenticity in building a successful and purpose-driven company.


Practicing Authenticity: Your Leadership Journey

Embracing and practicing authenticity is a journey, not a destination. It requires continuous reflection, alignment with your values, and the courage to be true to yourself in all situations. As we wrap up this exploration of authenticity, here are some steps you can take to practice authentic leadership in your own journey:

1. Reflect on Your Values

Take time to clarify your core values and beliefs. Reflect on what matters most to you and how these values influence your decisions and actions. Use these reflections as a guide to align your leadership practices with your true self.

2. Be Consistent

Strive for consistency in your words and actions. Ensure that your behavior reflects your values and that you present the same authentic self in all situations. This consistency will reinforce your authenticity and build trust with others.

3. Foster Open Communication

Encourage openness and transparency in your interactions with others. Share your thoughts and feelings honestly, and create an environment where others feel safe to do the same. This openness will strengthen your relationships and foster a culture of trust and mutual respect.

4. Embrace Feedback

Seek feedback from trusted colleagues, mentors, and team members. Use this feedback to gain insights into how others perceive your authenticity and where you might improve. Embracing feedback with an open mind and heart is a key component of practicing authenticity and personal growth.

5. Align Your Actions with Your Mission

Regularly assess how your actions and decisions align with your organization’s mission and your personal values. Make adjustments as needed to ensure that you are leading in a way that is true to your beliefs and purpose. This alignment will enhance your authenticity and reinforce your commitment to your vision.

6. Lead with Empathy and Compassion

Being authentic also means being attuned to the experiences and emotions of others. Lead with empathy and compassion, understanding that your team members have their own values, challenges, and aspirations. This empathetic approach not only supports your authenticity but also builds deeper connections and a more inclusive and supportive environment.

7. Stay True During Challenges

In times of adversity, staying true to your values can be particularly challenging but also most important. Whether you are facing criticism, making difficult decisions, or navigating complex situations, let your core values guide you. Authenticity during challenging times demonstrates your integrity and can inspire others to trust and follow your lead.


Bridging the Gap: Authenticity in Education and Business

While the contexts of education and business may differ, the principles of authentic leadership apply universally. For school principals and superintendents, leading authentically can transform school cultures, enhance teacher engagement, and improve student outcomes. In the private sector, authenticity fosters employee loyalty, drives innovation, and builds sustainable success.


In Educational Leadership

For school principals and superintendents, practicing authenticity means creating an educational environment that reflects your values and fosters genuine connections. It involves leading with integrity, being transparent with staff and students, and making decisions that align with your educational philosophy.

Practical Application: Consider how you communicate your vision and values to your school community. Are your actions and decisions consistently reflecting these values? Engage with teachers, parents, and students to understand their perspectives and foster a culture of openness and trust. Celebrate the diverse voices in your school and create spaces where everyone feels valued and heard.


In Business Leadership

In the private sector, authenticity is key to building a strong organizational culture and driving long-term success. It involves leading with a clear sense of purpose, being transparent with employees and stakeholders, and staying true to your company’s mission and values.

Practical Application: Reflect on how your leadership aligns with your company’s mission. Are you consistently communicating and acting on these values? Foster a culture where employees feel empowered to be themselves and contribute their unique perspectives. Encourage open dialogue and feedback, and lead by example in demonstrating authenticity and integrity.


Conclusion: The Heart of Effective Leadership

As we conclude this exploration of practicing authenticity, remember that authentic leadership is a journey of continuous growth and alignment. It is about leading with integrity, staying true to your values, and building genuine connections with those you lead. Whether you are guiding a school, a district, or a business, authenticity is the key to inspiring trust, loyalty, and lasting impact.


Reflecting Back and Looking Ahead

In our previous discussions on self-awareness and emotional intelligence, we have seen how these elements are intertwined with authentic leadership. Self-awareness helps you understand and align with your values. Emotional intelligence enables you to connect deeply with others. Together, these components form the foundation of authenticity.

BONUS: Vulnerability allows you to lead with openness and honesty. Read about how this characteristic of leadership can take your leadership to new levels.

As we move forward, our next blog post on July 15, 2024, will focus on building your relational skills in leadership. We will explore how strong relationships are the bedrock of a thriving school community. Until then, embrace the journey of authenticity and let your true self shine in your leadership.


Final Thoughts

Authenticity is not about perfection or having all the answers. It’s about being real, showing up with integrity, and leading in a way that aligns with your values. As you practice authenticity, remember that it’s a continuous process of reflection, alignment, and growth. Be patient with yourself and open to learning from each experience.


Thank you for joining us on this exploration of authentic leadership. I encourage you to take the insights and practical applications we’ve discussed and integrate them into your leadership practice. Share your experiences, challenges, and successes with our community. Together, we can support each other on this journey of leading with heart and authenticity.


Call to Action

Reflect on how you can practice authenticity in your own leadership. What steps can you take to align your actions with your values and lead with integrity? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below or start a group conversation in our member's area. Together, we can support each other on this journey of leading authentically. The journey of authenticity is ongoing, and each step you take will bring you closer to the leader you aspire to be.


References

George, B. (2007). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. Jossey-Bass.

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Another great article Andre!

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