Why 2022 Is The Year To Be Your Authentic Self
“New year, new me” is a common trope around this time of year. A new year is a fresh start; an opportunity for reinvention. And for leaders, there’s no shortage of advice on what to “be” to drive results and effectively lead people.
But an emerging leadership theory flips the notion of reinvention on its head, holding that the best and most effective leaders are simply…themselves.
Why “Be Yourself” is Good Advice for Leaders
It's been proven that “being yourself” has all sorts of benefits. Authenticity is known to contribute to both overall well-being and engagement. One study on the benefits of authenticity at work found that 80% of self-reported authentic employees believe authenticity improves the workplace.
Further, employees believe authenticity leads to:
- Improved relationships with coworkers
- More trust
- Higher levels of productivity
- A positive work environment
Employees wanting to show their full, authentic selves at work is a growing trend that companies are honoring with measures targeting inclusion and belonging. But without psychological safety—or the degree to which someone feels they can be authentic without fear of negative consequences—these measures can only go so far. In order to cultivate psychological safety, authenticity must start at the top—with authentic leadership.
Authentic leaders don’t try to take on a different personality or “style” in the name of leadership.
Sure, there are skills that all leaders should continue improving upon—like communication, delegation, and giving feedback. But according to Authentic Leadership Theory, leaders are most effective when they don’t try to hide or change who they are deep down.
Five Things All Authentic Leaders Need
Bill George, the father of Authentic Leadership Theory, says all authentic leaders need five things in order to be successful.
Purpose - Authentic leaders are deeply aligned with their personal purpose. Purpose is a leader’s “reason for being,” or “passions in action.” In other words, authentic leaders know their “why.” In his groundbreaking book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek explains that a “why” or purpose statement consists of two parts: contribution and impact. The contribution is the thing the leader is passionate about. The impact is the intended effect of the contribution. For example, Sinek’s own “why” statement reads: “To inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that, together, we can change our world.” Purpose is typically connected with an outcome greater than one’s self. And, the most effective, authentic leaders have a personal purpose that aligns with their organization’s mission.
Values - Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a successful company that doesn’t have a set of well-defined core values. Core values serve as guideposts for behavior and create a shared understanding of how work gets done. But despite their ubiquity at the company level, many leaders haven’t taken the time to explicitly define their personal core values. George writes that “the values of authentic leaders are shaped by their personal beliefs and developed through introspection, consultation with others, and years of experience.” Simply asking yourself, “what is most important to me in life?” or “what internal conditions allow me to do my very best work?” and recording the answers is a good first step to uncovering your values. For example, some common personal core values include:
Relationships - Authentic leaders build authentic relationships. Genuine relationships require both parties to show up authentically and share facts and stories about themselves. Creating deep, authentic relationships requires vulnerability—something many new leaders struggle with. A lot of first-time managers believe their employees want them to be a portrait of unwavering strength and fortitude; to have all the answers and never show weakness. But in actuality, employees want the exact opposite. Authentic leaders crave genuine connection, which often means taking the first step in being vulnerable with others. Now, some will confuse vulnerability with oversharing. It’s true that there are certain aspects of our lives that are better left unsaid—like our bathroom habits and childhood traumas, for example. While authentic leaders are vulnerable and honest, they are able to discern what to share with whom, and when. George puts it this way: Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviors carefully to be attuned to their audiences and to enroll their colleagues and teammates. As such, authentic leaders are sensitive to the impact they have on people, and will (hopefully) have cultivated the self-awareness necessary to know what makes people feel uncomfortable.
Self-discipline - Self-discipline, in essence, is all about delayed gratification. Authentic leaders with high self-discipline are comfortable with tolerating short-term discomfort when it leads to positive, long-term results. In this way, authentic leaders are careful to cultivate habits for resilience and mental strength. They understand the importance of taking care of themselves—getting enough sleep, exercising, and eating right—in order to be at their best. In this way, self-discipline and self-awareness are two sides of the same coin. You have to know yourself to know what you need to be at your best, and you need self-discipline in order to do what it takes to achieve that optimal state. This is why self-reflection is a powerful tool for the authentic leadership journey. Observing yourself at your best and reflecting on the conditions that were at play in that moment can help you understand where you need more self-discipline. Conversely, taking a long, hard look in the mirror when you’re not feeling your best can be even more powerful.
Heart - Authentic leaders cultivate compassion. Much like servant leaders, they strive to empower others and meet their needs. According to George, authentic leaders bring out the best in people through active listening and treating them as equals. As such, a common misconception is that authentic leaders are “soft.” With the focus on genuine care and compassion, it’s easy to see why some would perceive authentic leaders as too easy-going. This is a reflection of a false dichotomy that holds that a leader cannot both care deeply about people and achieve results. Brene Brown talks about having a “strong back and open front,” which illustrates the posture many authentic leaders take. The "strong back" refers to grit and driving hard to achieve goals, while the “soft front” illustrates an open heart that cares for others. Authentic leaders are both deeply relational and goal-oriented.
Instead of a leadership reinvention in 2022, consider instead a leadership reflection—on who you are as a person and how your leadership can be more aligned to that authentic self. At the end of the day, the best thing leaders can do is to be themselves—so that others feel safe to be themselves, too.
Kevin Kruse is the Founder + CEO of LEADx, a platform that scales and sustains leadership habits through micro-coaching and behavioral nudges. Kevin is also a New York Times bestselling author of Great Leaders Have No Rules, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, and Employee Engagement 2.0.