Authenticity is one of those words that is simultaneously self-evident and seemingly impossible to define. Maybe that is why so much has already been said on the topic. In fact, a Google search yielded 70.6 million results.
And with good reason. Employees respond to authentic leadership with higher levels of engagement. And leaders, in turn, likely experience less stress or anxiety levels when they work from an authentic place.
But leaders cannot approach authenticity the way they approach other management challenges. Surveys, 360-degree feedback, and training will help. But getting to true authenticity is a lifelong process. It requires awareness, a growth mindset, and a willingness to see what is really happening within yourself.
What is authentic leadership?
The most common words that turn up in articles that describe authentic leadership are “transparency, genuineness, and ethical behavior”, or others like them.
But as is often the case, I think Brene Brown says it best when she said “people who are authentic believe the statement ‘I am enough’.
In real life, it may feel awkward or silly to pull back long enough from the daily tribulations of leadership to ask “hold on–do I believe that I am enough?”. And yet, that is the most critical question of all, and for all, including leaders.
Because when we believe that we are enough—as in, no matter what happens, I know I will be ok—it frees us to behave authentically. It frees us from fear of what others think, but not from showing kindness towards others. And this is because we know how to direct kindness to ourselves.
After all, if you believe you are enough, there’s no need to flagellate yourself, compare yourself to others, judge others unkindly in order to boost yourself, etc.
And when an authentic person becomes an authentic leader, they are able to translate those abilities to a cascading outward effect towards the whole organization.
The bottom line is that in some way, and at some time, we all struggle to believe “I am enough”. But it can be hard to contemplate while simultaneously running from meeting to meeting, scanning your emails and your to-do list, and preparing for your next big presentation.
That is why I am offering you five behavior checks that may be telling you that you do not yet believe you are enough. Use these, not to beat yourself up further, but to simply note and potentially curb those behaviors.
5 Behaviors to Watch Out For
At work, we encounter other people and all their imperfections on a daily basis. Often things do not go to plan, due to human error. When you criticize a person rather than evaluate the output of their work, you are judging their worth. This satisfies you in the short term but wastes your time and energy in unproductive ways.
What it looks like at work: Complaining about, or passing judgment about a person’s innate ability, worth, or talent.
What to do when you catch yourself: Remember, everyone is doing their best with what they have available to them at the time. Redirect the conversation to work output issues, and where appropriate, offer guidance instead of criticism.
Chances are, if you are prone to criticizing others, you are even harder on yourself. How often throughout the day do you criticize yourself in your head, or out loud to others? This is the most naked manifestation of the feeling of unworthiness.
What it looks like at work: Deflecting compliments with self-criticism or beating yourself up for a mistake or poor performance.
What to do when you catch yourself: Ask what you would say to a friend who was in a similar situation. Allow yourself to receive that same compassion and grace.
The basic definition of regret is looking with sadness upon an experience for which you feel personal responsibility. When you push regret down or aside, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn. Ultimately, fessing up to regret means getting vulnerable. When you ignore regret or wallow in it, you distance yourself from that part of your experience and deprive an opportunity for deep connection.
What it looks like at work: Rationalizing your way out of an apology; rehashing events in your mind with feelings of guilt or worry.
What to do when you catch yourself: It depends on the regret. If you can make amends, do so. If that is not possible, take the learnings for the future and aim to do better next time.
Identity overly defined by work
We tend to take our careers pretty seriously. When you overly connect with your career successes (or failures), you block authenticity in a big way, protecting yourself behind the shield of career accomplishments. Your career is a key part of a satisfying existence, but it does not define you.
What it looks like at work: Pursuing status rather than growth or impact. Judging others who don’t seem to take work as seriously as you do (through late hours, etc); satisfaction with work that comes at the expense of other important areas of life such as family, friends, community, or health.
What to do when you catch yourself: Look to the other areas of your life where you find meaning. In conversation with others, do not start with work or job title. Ask another question besides “And what do you do?”.
Most of us want to turn in high-quality work. But the desire to be perfect can take over and cause damage. If you attain success by reaching for high standards, you likely believe that in order to continue to be successful, you must avoid failure at all costs.
What it looks like at work: Secretly (or sometimes quite openly) pouring hours into work, anxiously overpreparing to the point of exhaustion.
What to do when you catch yourself: Ask yourself “what would be good enough”. Sense-check the quality of work needed with a trusted colleague. Stay attuned to the diminishing returns of perfectionism. Reflect on how previous failures have been beneficial to your growth.
Transparency, genuineness, and ethical leadership are noble pursuits. But they do not get to the root of truly authentic leadership. The humble truth is that the work to become an authentic leader truly starts from within. Monitoring these behaviors in yourself will help you see when your “I’m not enough” belief is running the show and help to adjust course. Gradually, you will remove impediments to the kind of vulnerability, connection, and role modeling of self-worth that leads to truly authentic leadership.
Wendy Hultmark, CPC, ACC, is a coach who helps women get what they want from a career they love. Learn more at www.wendyhultmark.com.