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How to be a leader without faking it

4 min read


What makes it important to understand and stay connected with the core of who you are as a human being? How do you become an authentic leader? How do you know when your actions are less than genuine?

These are some intriguing and deep questions that you may not have thought about. I have — for the simple reason that I believe the answers are important if leaders are to sustain the energy and dedication necessary to to inspire themselves and others.

Inspiring others is part of what you must do, because doing so keeps people engaged and interested in the work at hand. You can’t fake it. You have to feel it. Recent studies in human interaction and brain science have shown us that emotions are contagious, and this goes both ways; any dissonance you have gets picked up by others no matter how hard you might “try” to be genuine.

This is why it makes sense to know yourself well, and it may be some of the hardest work you do. Learning about who you are is also a good way to develop self-confidence, stay resilient in difficult times and to develop the kind of relationships that will support organizational health.

Self-knowledge is a journey, not a destination. Too often, I see executives in the C-suite avoiding the kind of development that will help them remain true to themselves and be honest and genuine to stakeholders. That’s where trouble begins. So no matter whether you are the CEO or the project leader for a small initiative, it pays to:

Learn about yourself: Much of your self-knowledge will come from observing your behaviors and reflecting on them. Since we learn by accumulating a variety of experiences, this learning takes time. Being present enough in your interactions and decisions to observe yourself is a great start. Taking well-vetted self-assessments (Myers-Briggs, DiSC) to learn about your strengths and foibles are helpful if you notice and observe how your results play out in your behaviors.

Know what you value: It’s important for you to have a shortlist of values to refer to when making decisions, interacting, and influencing others. A list of your top three to five values are like the foundation to a building. If they aren’t there, the building won’t stand. Likewise, if you don’t know what you value, your actions may not be consistent and anchored, causing others confusion and doubting your motives. Trust can erode, undermining your leadership. Make your values explicit and keep them accessible.

Be aware of others’ perceptions about you: One of the most honest ways to understand how others perceive you is through 360-degree instruments, where those who respond to the questionnaire remain anonymous. If your organization doesn’t have one they use, find an external consultant or coach who does. Alternatively, asking for feedback directly from stakeholders is another way to get this information, although it may be less than honest. This can give you information about what others observe in your behaviors which sometimes may not sync up with your own perceptions.

Reflect: For many action-oriented leaders, taking time to reflect is the hardest part of getting to know themselves, but think of it as the beginning of becoming a better leader (an action in itself!). A few minutes each day to reflect back on whether you showed up in harmony with who you and what you value will serve your intentions to be authentic. Ask yourself: What did I do today that was a genuine outward expression of who I am? Did I make decisions and act with my values in mind? Where did I stray?

It’s important to know who you in order to lead others with inspiration. Where will you begin to learn more about you?

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.