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How can authentic leadership drive colleges to success?

6th February 2020

Guest post by Debbie Wilshire, Leadership Development Consultant and AoC Associate

What is authentic leadership?

Authentic leadership has been a much-used phrase in recent times. A straight-forward interpretation is that as leaders we are real and that we mustn’t present a persona that is fundamentally different to the person that we are. It is important because authenticity is a pre-requisite to traits that underpin trustworthiness and the willingness of others to follow what we say and do.

That sounds easy – just be yourself!

Why then is there so much emphasis currently on the idea of authenticity? Over the past few decades there has been an expectation that leaders should fit a certain mould. That, if it doesn’t match who you are, then you need to ‘fake it until you make it’. The mould was usually one of the confident extrovert who is also charismatic. Someone who was significantly better at anything than anyone else in their organisation, or wider sphere of influence, for that matter. Their strength of personality would carry them through any challenge. And, it was expected that their team would display similar behaviours and leadership traits. It was important to fit in.

What are the problems with inauthentic leadership?

Unsurprisingly, this in turn has led to examples of cognitive dissonance. Good people trying very hard to behave in ways that aren’t natural. Some of the stress faced by managers and leaders can be a result of this clash between who someone really is and who they are trying to appear to be.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn behaviours and leadership styles. One of the dangers of personality stereotyping is the risk of having one of the following perceptions: ‘I’m an introverted analyst and I can’t learn to be more creative’ or ‘I’m a target driven achiever who can’t have a wide range of motivational tools’.

We all work in education and the core to our very thinking is the belief we can all learn and develop. This belief is so important to the success of colleges and their students. As learning organisations we should have that as part of our individual and collective DNA.

Dr Brene Brown, American professor, lecturer and author describes authenticity as:

The daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

How can we be effective, authentic leaders?

Being an authentic leader depends upon first having a good understanding of ourselves and recognising that we are all developing. If you have undertaken something like a Myers Brigg profile in the past, chances are it will not be identical today. Thank goodness. Imagine if you hadn’t developed after all the experiences you have had professionally and personally.

A commitment to continuous professional reflection and development protects us from using authenticity as an excuse. Have you ever worked with someone who, whilst having many good qualities, also had at least one really bad trait? Did they take the view – “well, that’s just who I am. I know it’s not good that I (lose my temper/am always late/don’t listen properly), but that’s me!” Being authentically lacking in self-control/ late/ inattentive doesn’t make the behaviours any more acceptable!

Let me leave this blog with a couple of questions:

  1. What processes do you have to help you recognise when you are/are not being authentic? Who are the people you trust enough to go to for help?
  2. Authentic leadership is hard work, a daily practice. It’s not just okay to ask for help, it’s a professional responsibility. You owe it to your people.

If you’d like to learn more about specialist training courses in developing senior leadership skills, then please take a look at our senior development programme.