Again and again throughout the history of effective leaders, a consistent sentiment has echoed: to be an authentic leader is not to lead the most people, wield the most power, or even achieve the most outcomes. To be an authentic leader lies deeper than those surface measures, in character and emotional intelligence.
Authentic Leadership Begins By Inspiring and Empowering Teams
“Great things in business are never done by one person.”
In 2003—the year Apple launched the iTunes music store—Steve Jobs went on 60 Minutes and explained his view of leadership.
Is there a “boss” that impressed upon you what it means to be a fair, just and effective leader? Who comes into your mind when you think of power handled correctly?
Interestingly, “leader” is not first and foremost defined as a high-ranking person. In fact, the first example of a leader (n.) at Merriam-Webster, is “something that leads: such as: a primary or terminal shoot of a plant.”
This might seem odd; it is also spot-on.
To lead is to be connected and alive, as a plant’s tendrils are connected to their roots and their environment, seeking nutrients and sunlight for growth. A leader cannot exist without the living thing it’s growing out of; it cannot exist in a vacuum; it must be actively growing and interacting.
When the definition does get to human leaders, it lists them in this order: guide, conductor, military director, a commanding authority, the head of a political party (and then, somewhat inexplicably, “a horse placed in advance of the other horses of a team”).
One thing all of these associations have in common is the team aspect. Like the plant, a human leader is part and parcel of the group.
So what sets an authentic leader apart from the rest of the group?
Being Authentic in Leadership Increases Connection and Presence
This is where the idea of authenticity becomes paramount. When you encounter a true leader, you know it. Their presence is commanding but not demeaning; they forge ahead but not in the name of isolated self-interest; they are both fully connected and a beacon to look toward. They create employee engagement without even trying.
Here, the verbs in the definition of the term leader are telling. A leader by definition is someone who “directs,” “has authority,” “manages,” “presides,” and/or “goes first.”
Nowhere is force mentioned, control or power!
When I hear the term “leader,” a boot-clad teacher with long blonde hair, two children, and the look of a former women’s water polo player comes to mind. She is wearing a grey sweater dress, standing in the basement room of a small, private college in Portland, Oregon and talking about long-form journalism. She was loud but not abrasive. She placed her students in uncomfortable situations, like shadowing their heroes, to let them learn for themselves. She was technically a non-tenured Media and Society professor with a softball hobby, but she is the leader in my mind because of the way she made me feel and grow. She became my example, and now I am inspired to lead as she did.
A leader could be by definition many things—the tendons that cause physical movement; punctuation like ellipsis used to lead the eye; a lure guiding fish into a trap; a blank section at the beginning or end of a reel of film or recorded tape.
To be authentic, however, has less to do with what you’re connected to and more to do with the fact that you are indeed connected to the whole.
Perhaps the best answer to the question “how can I be an authentic leader?” is inside already. Who inspires connection and growth from you? How can you be alive, connected, and “direct” without being caught up in power?
One could slightly edit Jobs’ statement in the 2003 interview to read: “Great things are never done by one person. They are grown by an authentic leader."
For more on authentic leadership and how to be a great leader in your life and work, check out our blog "Emotional Intelligence and Empathy in Leadership."