If you had to guess one powerful personality trait that all extraordinary leaders throughout human history have had in common, what do you think will it be?
What do you think made Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill, and Mohandas Gandhi truly great leaders and changemakers?
The answer is authenticity.
As a human trait, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines authentic as “true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.” It’s about being someone whose beliefs, words, actions, and emotions are in alignment with who they are underneath. And if we focus on authenticity in the context of leadership, it’s about being an individual who has absolute clarity about his vision and his core values and acts in accordance with them no matter what. After all, the cornerstone of leadership is leading by example.
Authentic leaders share their stories and genuine desires with others, and as an outcome, people also respond with their own stories and dreams. This builds trust and rapport, which strengthens relationships and inspires more people to bring their human selves to work.
Authenticity, as Marcus Buckingham puts it, is your most precious commodity as a leader.
We all have our origin stories and experiences that define our unique perspectives. And the more we open up and share, the more authentic we become and the more relatable we are to others.
There is an interesting anecdote about Winston Churchill that highlights his authenticity. He once met with a flight sergeant who was being honored for bravery during World War II. The sergeant had the courage to climb onto the wing of his bomber plane at 13,000 feet to extinguish a fire in the starboard engine. However, meeting Churchill in person scared this officer so much that he was tongue-tied. Churchill noticed his edginess and said, “You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence.” The flight sergeant agreed. “Then you can imagine,” Churchill continued, “how humble and awkward I feel in yours.”
As a leader, you must be willing to be vulnerable and show up with courage and empathy. Only then you’ll be able to maximize your influence and make a lasting impact on humanity.
In today’s fast-paced world where being fake and insincere has become more prevalent than ever, authenticity is a breath of fresh air. Being authentic does mean taking a risk to let go of our shells and show others our true selves. It’s uncomfortable and always carries with it the very human fear of not fitting in and being harshly criticized. But the greater risk is being inauthentic and not leading by example.
If we want others to share their stories and struggles with us and show us their real selves to us, we must first share our stories and struggles with them and show our real selves to them.
As bestselling author and Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison writes, “Being authentic is the only way to bridge the barriers—physical distance, emotional separation, social divides, and even those not-so-intimate Zoom calls. We must show who we truly are, what motivates us, and what we believe about the future.”
He further adds, “None of us can gaze at our reflection and self-proclaim, ‘I’m so authentic.’ It doesn’t work that way. Authenticity needs to be experienced by others in dialogue and relationships.”