Candace A. Croft, Ph.D., R.H.
Keith Smith, M.A., M.B.A., Ed.D..
Authenticity has received increasing popularity in the leadership literature over the past few years. The literature provides an impressive array of descriptive attributes for mastering authentic leadership. Authentic leaders have been collectively described as self‐aware, genuine, self‐actualized, vulnerable, insightful, mission‐driven, results‐oriented, and focused on the long‐term. Authenticity involves initiative, relationship transparency, balanced processing, and internalized moral perspective. Finally, but certainly not least important, authentic leaders have impact by giving the heart its head (Clapp‐Smith, Vogelgesang, & Avev, 2009; Gardner, Davis, & Dickens, 2011; George, 2003; George & Sims, 2007, George et al., 2007; Hyatt, 2015; Kernis & Goldman, 2006; Kruse, 2013; Luthans & Avolio, 2003; Peterson et al., 2012; Peus, et al., 2012; Rego, et al., 2013; Tate, 2008; Walumbwa, et al., 2008; Walumbwa, et al., 2010). A number of measures exist to assess authentic leadership including the Leader Authenticity Scale, the Authentic Leadership Questionnaire, Authentic Leadership Inventory, Authenticity Inventory, and the Leadership Authenticity Questionnaire (Avolio, Garner, & Walumbwa, 2007; Neider & Schriesham, 2011; Optimal Thinking, 2015; Mind Garden, 2015).
Authentic leadership is, indeed, a pattern. As such, it involves the integration of all components of self—beliefs, emotions, thoughts, assumptions, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors—into a unified design that aligns with one’s personal truth. Further, setting an authentic pattern means knowing how to translate concepts into practice. Even with significant contributions to the literature, the question remains: How does one practically activate authenticity with self, as a leader, and with others? Where is acknowledgement of spirit? Emotion? Heartmind? Intuition? Intent? Mystery?
Perhaps the definition of authenticity which resonates most strongly is Dr. Phil’s defining question: “Are you living a life that is more in tune with your authentic self (who you were created to be) or your fictional “self” (who the world has told you to be)?”
Who are you? One cannot expect to be authentic without knowing one’s true self. Furthermore, who is that person at work? Too often, we allow ourselves to be defined by external factors, e.g., position titles, job descriptions, and projects. But that is not who we are - not truly. Knowing how, when, and where to align the work experience with our authentic selves increases a sense of satisfaction, mastery, meaning, engagement, and success. From that foundation, teams enjoy peak performance and productivity that renew energy across the work day, rather than depleting it.
The journey into authentic leadership requires mastering the active design of one’s life story (Shamir & Eilam, 2005). As George, et al. (2007) confirm, this process is not one of passive observation, but active engagement. Active engagement requires mindfulness.
Life stories create patterns in our daily lives, including our lives at work. We all have them, but rarely do we take the time to examine the patterns we have set for ourselves, what they tell us about ourselves, and the powerful impact they have upon us. With awareness through mindfulness, we can re‐design our chosen patterns to better overlay our true ones. The better the overlay match, the greater our authenticity. Leadership, authentic or otherwise, represents a pattern of behaviors within the leadership context, just as being a person, authentic or otherwise, represents a pattern of behaviors throughout daily life. Additionally, authenticity encompasses more than behaviors: It is a collective experiential pattern designed from the integration of complete self—one’s individual worldview, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, assumptions, attitudes, perspectives, and behaviors.
Patterns can be grossly categorized in two ways: routines and rituals. Each serves a purpose, but only rituals serve authenticity. Automatic behaviors set routine patterns and signal inauthenticity through lack of engagement. They allow us to function without feeling the experience. When routine sets the predominant pattern, leaders and teams are left numb, empty, unfulfilled, dissatisfied, and frustrated. They feel undervalued and seek new expression.
Rituals, on the other hand, are enlivening experiences. They are considered sacred, not because of any religious attachment, but because they respect and protect alignment with and expression of one’s authentic self, one’s soul self. When authenticity is supported and strengthened, work routines can be transformed into rituals that allow individuals to bring spirit into the workplace. As a result, they experience greater meaning, satisfaction, and joy at work because work becomes an extension, an expression, of the heartmind. Through ritual, mindfulness is increased and the ordinary day is transformed into an extraordinary experience through the expression of authentic self. Yes, even at work!
Authentic leaders are aware of the individual pattern influencing self and others, while simultaneously staying mindful of the patterns of all others on the team as they affect and are affected by the rest. They understand what deepens a meaningful experience for each team member, not to be withheld and used as rewards, but to establish a scared space where what is valued can be manifested by each member, integrated into the collective whole of a project.
Mastery of authentic leadership lies not in cognitive knowledge; authenticity results from experience. We cannot think our way to authenticity; we each must feel our way through it. That is the meaning of life, including the life we take with us when we walk through the doors at work. In this scenario, the authentic, or heart‐centered, leader creates the space for each team member to express her or his personal truth with respect for the expression of the personal truths of the others.
There are six aspects to designing an authentic leadership pattern through ritual:
1. Authenticity. Shamir and Eilam (2005) stated that “. . . authentic leaders ask for, and listen to, honest feedback.” As any spy will attest, information is only as good as its source. So, what is the source of this “honest feedback”? Who does one ask for feedback? Who does one listen to? The best source for self‐knowledge and self‐reflection is true self, not an external source. Authenticity results from feeling life through one’s skin, one’s physical being, and becoming mindful of what rings true, or resonates, with self. (Please note that we are referring to higher‐self, not ego‐self as the source.)
Establishing a mindful connection with true self is the first step in mastering that awareness. It is this internal connection that creates the appropriate filter or guiding force for living or leading authentically. There are several ways to accomplish this, including heightened awareness, meditation, and guided imagery. Once a connection has been established, the daily patterns one creates can be examined with new eyes.
2. Intent. The literature states that authentic leaders are “mission‐driven.” But authentic leaders can only be mission‐driven if the mission of reference is true to the individual’s mission of heart. In other words, does the individual’s true intent match the team/organization’s intent? Without a good match, meaning found through work fades. Members feel unvalued because they see little to no correspondence between their work and what they personally value, i.e., the intent of their true pattern. Mismatched patterns at this level are like radio static: They result in miscommunication, misinterpretation, derailed projects, dissatisfaction, low morale and productivity and, at times, outright rebellion. Mismatched intentional patterns result in people seeking protection through disengagement rather than sticking their necks out in creative growth. The mission of an authentic leader is to focus on the intent and purpose of the storyline being created by the cast of characters. This is not an impossible mission. It does, however, require a shift in mindset. For example, authentic leaders are not focused on results per se, but on the collective, personal experiences of the team members that create the results. Further, authentic leaders do not focus on the long‐term, but are present and focused on the potent here‐and‐now that creates the future. Authentic leaders create a pattern of meaning for their members by attuning the project/team to the personal mission of each member.
Intent is more than thoughts; it is fueled by emotions. Emotion is the seat of passion. Who does not want leaders and team members to be passionate about what they do? If true, then leading emotions is part of the skill set of an authentic leader. Authentic leaders understand that team members are not robots; that everyone comes to work as a human being. Viewing emotions as “signs,” they do not fear emotions, running from them or attempting to cleanse the team experience of them. Authentic leaders seek to incorporate them into the pattern for continual growth and positive progress.
3. Signs. Coaches, we regularly hear our clients looking for signs to indicate whether or not they are on the right path. The signs we seek are rarely as obvious as those posted along highways or in public places, but they are there. As part of an authentic life experience, they come in the form of impressions and feelings. Someone walks into your presence and you feel a warm expansion or a chill down your spine. That is a sign. Do you consciously give it attention or shrug it off? Emotions, thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, actions, words, and body language are all examples of signs. Do you take heed when you say someone is a “pain in the neck”? Or simply wonder why you later develop a ferocious headache? Seemingly serendipitous events are signs. Are you frustrated for being delayed at a red light or do you recognize it as a sign when you pass an accident a few miles down the road? Pain is a sign, a sign that one is being inauthentic. This is true whether experienced existentially, emotionally, mentally, or physically (in that symptomatic order). Weak authenticity results in work routines that allow individuals to become numb to the pain of inauthenticity while functioning in their jobs. People in pain become tense and irritable. If you or your team is in pain, authenticity needs to be increased.
Signs are all around us, all the time. So, what prevents us from seeing the signs? Two primary obstacles stand in our way. Adopting automatic routines to get through the day, we do not see them. Second, even when aware of the signs, we must learn to interpret them correctly. To overcome the former and acknowledge the ever‐present signs, a practice of mindfulness is required. With mindfulness, we become aware of the symbols, words, and feelings that pop up across the course of any given day. To overcome the latter, we need to stay in connection with the true self who is proficient with the universal, mythopoetic language of signs. The ego‐self, communicating through our mind’s analytic left brain, is not fluent in the mythopoetic language communicating through images, sounds, colors, and shapes.
A word about mythopoetic feedback: Each person receives messages differently. Some of us are more attuned to sounds, others are more visual, and some resonate with feelings. Each of us is capable of receiving messages in all ways, but one modality typically is primary. Just as we have recognized for decades that students learn differently—some more auditory, visual, or kinesthetic than others—so, too, are all people students learning about self through life. Authentic leaders recognize this and create full‐sensory experiences for their teams to produce greater meaning, engagement, and success.
4. Mystery. Ritual involves bringing childlike wonder to work throughout the day. With wonder, no day is ever routine. Wonder requires presence in the powerful here‐and‐now. Mystery requires that we mindfully open the present and see what pops out of the black box of the unknown that exceeds our expectations. Authentic leaders are comfortable nosing their teams beyond the comfort zone to experience greater life outside of the box.
5. Making space for spirit. Do team members leave their spirits outside the door when they come to work like weapons checked at the door to a Western saloon? Or, is spirit alive and well in our teams? Spirit is an integral part of each team member, including leaders. As humans, we all have spirit. All teams and organizations desire high morale which translates to being engaged in work, with spirit. When spirits are checked at the door, team members become fragmented; they do not bring their complete selves to work. It is the equivalent of cutting a hole in the pattern. No design has integrity when ripped to shreds.
Making room for spirit involves being aware of daily attachments, mindfully setting sacred space for personal expression that includes emotional, mental, and physical space. Making space for spirit has direct implications for office and meeting space, meeting facilitation, and time management.
6. Increasing the love factor. Can authentic leadership be learned? Yes, authentic leadership can be learned, if the leader wants to learn and believes in the unity psychology principles underlying it. Often, however, it is not individual learning that is problematic, but the culture that serves as the context for its practice. True self‐awareness, genuineness, and transparency, along with resultant vulnerability, are vital to authentic leadership; however, it assumes a team/organizational culture that supports growth and expansion with room for mistakes as unfolding gems of insight. Authenticity simply cannot survive, let alone thrive, in a fear‐based culture where employees, including leaders, wear masks for self‐protection.
Authentic leaders increase the love factor with their teams and organizations. Authentic leaders are often called heart‐centered because they balance the knowledge of the spirit‐heart with the intellectual‐mind. They understand that the ego‐self is fear‐based because its sole function is protection, increasing safety and security. In contrast, the spirit‐heart is love‐based, providing expansive growth. Only one can be in the driver’s seat at any given time. It is impossible to engage in growth and protection simultaneously.
The authentic leader is comfortable allowing heart to lead, both with self and the team. Allowing heart is a courageous act that requires leaders to first accept love of one’s true pattern before extending it or facilitating it with the team. Do you love your authentic self? If the answer is no, it is probably because you have not yet connected with your heart. Do you forgive yourself for human mistakes? Or do you define yourself as only as good as your last mistake? Are you gentle with yourself on this learning curve of becoming more and more authentic? Or do you treat yourself harshly, serving as your own worse critic? Do you see the world as abundant and caring or as cold and limited in resources? The degree of love you give or withhold from yourself sets the pattern for your team.
Love is not found in group hugs or parties. It lives in the quality of compassionate wisdom. As a quality, compassionate wisdom is itself a developing process toward ever‐greater mastery, not simply an ingredient that can easily be tossed into the mix. It involves releasing fear and control, giving people the benefit of the doubt, seeking understanding, providing encouragement, accepting differences in authentic expression, and allowing forgiveness. Transparency results from gentle, but direct, honesty. Increasing the love factor entails lifting the vibrational frequency of the team and not being pulled down into lower energies found in gossip, backbiting, and learning about team members through indirect sources. Probably one of the most difficult aspects to authentic leadership is the inherent responsibility for those whose patterns do not harmonize with the rest.
Once the basic concepts are learned for authenticating self, applying them with a team is relatively simple. Simple, but as we are known to say, rarely easy. Vigilant mindfulness is needed to design and prevent ritual from regressing into routine. Since routine contains a low‐vibrational frequency, it has a strong pull. If you experience a draining of energy versus renewed vigor as a pattern when moving into authentic leadership, read the signs: You are being sucked into a rut.
Authentic leadership requires awareness of patterns without judgment through acceptance and allowing. Authentic leaders understand that each team, each project, will be a unique artistic interpretation of patterns provided by the cast of characters. How does one remain vigilant and create an authentic design throughout the course of an entire project or semester? Staying mindful of the daily patterns being created—routine or ritual, fear-based or love‐based—is the first step. Make no mistake: Authentic, heart‐centered leadership that follows the principles of unity psychology is a brave endeavor and one that should only be attempted by forward‐thinking organizations. Organizations that neglect a context dedicated to its practice and merely cite its concepts as buzzwords will cause more harm than good by heightening inauthenticity. But, when adopted fully, with heart, authentic leadership provides an Aha!™ experience that transforms teams and cultures with meaning, engagement, innovation, and success for all involved.
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