In the past 10 years, authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. This is a sea change from 2003 when I wrote “Authentic Leadership.” Back then, many people asked what it meant to be authentic. In the book, I defined authentic leaders as genuine, moral and character-based leaders.
“People of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations … who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values.”
In 2005, I created the Authentic Leadership Development course at Harvard Business School. We didn’t realize then how many people yearned to become more authentic in their leadership. Since its inauguration in 2005, ALD has become one of the most popular electives for both MBA students and executive education participants. In the past decade, 6,000 people have participated in these groups.
What have we learned from the past decade of teaching? How can chief learning officers help develop authenticity in their company?
Authentic leaders are true to themselves and to their beliefs. They have discovered their true north, align people around a shared purpose, and empower them to lead authentically. Because they engender trust and develop genuine connections with people, authentic leaders can motivate them to achieve higher levels of performance. As servant leaders, they are more concerned about serving people than their own success or recognition.
The first step to develop authentic leaders is to help others understand their life story. For my 2007 book, “True North,” we conducted the largest in-depth study of leaders ever conducted, based on first-person interviews. We discovered leaders developed authentically by reflecting on their lives. Their stories cover the full spectrum of experiences, including the impact of parents, coaches and mentors, community support, scouting, student government and early employment. Many leaders were influenced by difficult experiences, such as personal illness or illness of a family member; death of a loved one; or feelings of being excluded, discriminated against or rejected by peers.
At this point, you may be asking, doesn’t everyone have a life story? What makes leaders’ stories different? Well, many people with painful stories see themselves as victims, feeling the world has dealt them a bad hand. Some get so caught up in chasing the world’s esteem they never become genuine leaders. Or, they lack the introspection to connect the dots between their life experiences and the goals they are pursuing. Often this causes them to repeat mistakes that led to earlier problems.
The difference in authentic leaders lies in the way they frame their stories. Their life stories provide the context for their lives, and through them they find their passion to make an impact in the world. Novelist John Barth once said, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” In other words, it is how you understand yourself through your story that matters, not the facts of your life in particular. Leaders who reflect on their stories understand how important events and interactions with people have shaped their approach to the world.
Companies need to give leaders spaces to reflect on their life’s journey. The best way to do this is to create small, vulnerable communities that meet regularly to reflect. In my course, Authentic Leadership Development, we create six- to eight-person leadership development groups as an integral part of the classroom experience. These groups spend time sharing the crucibles of their lives with one another. They’re immensely powerful — some groups continue to meet years after taking the course together.
Again, for learning leaders, the goal is to create spaces to reflect or share. Even though we teach the course, we know that authenticity can’t be taught. Instead, people grow more authentic as they become more vulnerable with one another. No slide deck, online course or workshop will change someone overnight. Only habitual reflection can lead to change.
To develop authentically, leaders need to do the difficult inner work to develop themselves. They need to develop a strong moral compass that is based on their values. Finally, they need a space to reflect on their life journey. If, as a CLO, you can help leaders do that, you’ve moved them one step forward on the road to authenticity.
Bill George is senior fellow at Harvard Business School, author of “Discover Your True North,” and former chair and CEO of Medtronic. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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