Answering the Call for Authentic Leadership

You’ve heard it before: We live in a VUCA world—a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The antidote is authentic leadership. Authentic leaders are self-aware and mission-driven. They operate with integrity. And they focus on purpose, not just profit. In this post, Brantlee Underhill explains why authentic leadership is the right management style for our times.

Written by Brantlee Underhill | PMI • 1 September 2022

Answering the Call for Authentic Leadership

What comes to mind when I say the words “authentic leadership?” Maybe you think of a high-profile corporate chieftain. Or a TED Talk pundit holding forth on the latest leadership or management issue.

I think of my CrossFit coach.

“Coach” is a Black woman who co-owns a fitness business near my home. I witnessed her authentic leadership style two years ago in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis. Her gym was forcibly closed, and her business was in the midst of uncertainty—just as social media lit up with news of racial violence in Minneapolis and other cities.

Coach is the owner who makes the business racially and gender diverse. She stood up and spoke out and reinforced what our gym community was all about: everyone is welcome and being a black woman isn’t easy. Despite the risks, she said in effect: This is our business, this is who I am, and I’m not going to stand for intolerance and judgment. Her views were shared in response to criticism that her business wasn’t doing enough to denounce racism, yet it was something she had to address nearly every day of her life. Some people took their business elsewhere. But that’s the way she shows up, and looking back, has always shown up. And I couldn’t be prouder to be associated with someone who is her true self—unafraid to live by her most closely held values.

That’s the thing about authentic leadership. Whether you’re a natural-born leader, have acquired leadership skills over the course of your career, or have had leadership responsibilities thrust upon you, authentic leaders bring their true selves to everything they do. They are self-aware, genuine and trustworthy. And they lead with their hearts, not just their heads.

Why is that important?

Experts say that authentic leadership brings out the best in employees. Indeed, employee perceptions of authentic leadership were the strongest predictor of job satisfaction in a study published by Leadership & Organization Development Journal. And researchers have found a “strong connection” between authentic leadership and feelings of inclusion in the workplace.

Authentic leadership is particularly relevant in our profession. Project management is all about working in collaborative teams, understanding stakeholder needs, adopting a customer-first mentality and having an open and transparent work style. Perhaps most important, our PMI Code of Ethics stresses responsibility, respect, fairness and honesty—all traits associated with authentic leadership.

Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and executive fellow at Harvard Business School whose 2003 book Authentic Leadership helped popularize the term, cites five main characteristics of authentic leadership:

  • Purpose and passion: An authentic leader understands where the organization is headed and energizes the team around an over-arching vision.
  • Values and behavior: Like my CrossFit coach, an authentic leader has strong values and follows those values consistently regardless of roadblocks or difficulties.
  • Relationships and connectedness: Authentic leadership is founded on trusting relationships that are, in turn, built upon open and transparent communications.
  • Self-discipline and consistency: Authentic leaders are focused and disciplined, and they’re able to manage through setbacks or failures.
  • Compassion: Authentic leaders are compassionate—sensitive to the needs of others and supportive of their people in good times and bad.

Saying someone is an authentic leader doesn't mean he or she is flawless. Indeed, one sure sign of authentic leadership is a willingness to admit mistakes. But authentic leaders have mastered the art of being their genuine selves on the job.

That’s not always easy. Traditionally, managers were encouraged to keep their work and personal lives separate, to focus primarily on financial goals and to conduct business in a reserved, even stoical fashion. But the world has turned, and today’s ever-changing business environment requires a different management style.

Fortunately, leadership is a learned skill. Here are behaviors you can adopt to achieve a more authentic leadership style:

  • Cultivate self-awareness. Know your strengths and weaknesses and understand how your actions affect your team. Self-knowledge supports the development of emotional intelligence and allows you to operate with greater purposefulness and integrity.
  • Act with humility. Humility, in my opinion, is an under-rated virtue. Listen to those around you. Seek out and accept their feedback. Ask: What could I be doing differently? What am I doing well? How can I support you? How can I create a better environment for you to perform?
  • Demonstrate empathy. Empathy is, perhaps, the most important of all power skills and is closely linked to “compassion” on Bill George’s list of authentic leadership attributes. It’s the mirror image of self-knowledge, allowing you to understand and appreciate what others are experiencing.
  • Energize your team around a purpose and vision. It's important for project professionals to align their team’s work with a higher-level vision. Team members need to see how their work is making a difference—for the good of the organization and for themselves.
  • Create space. I’m a big fan of holding space with people—creating a psychologically-safe environment where people can have honest conversations and where they have time to render a considered opinion.
  • Draw on your personal experiences. As long as it’s workplace appropriate, I’m 100 percent supportive of sharing aspects of your personal life with colleagues. Storytelling is a powerful skill. When you can tell an authentic story from your own experience, it demonstrates vulnerability and makes a leader more relatable.

The need for authentic leadership has never been greater. The last few years have exacted a terrible toll in terms of business disruption and employee stress and anxiety. But I believe that everyone has the potential to be an authentic leader. We all have the capacity to grow in self-awareness—to understand how our actions influence others. That’s the core of authentic leadership—operating with integrity, building trust, and, ultimately, being your best self.

Brantlee Underhill headshot

Brantlee Underhill
Chief Community Officer and Interim Managing Director, North America | PMI

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