8 strategies for authentic leadership

AboveBoard | Jul 05, 2023

Own your story, lead with pride and authenticity.

Authentic leaders are effective leaders.

Marked by self-awareness, integrity, and vulnerability, authentic leadership isn't necessarily the easiest or most innate leadership style, but it is one of the most rewarding. "Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads," according to researchers with Harvard Business Review. "They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are."

In honor of the LGBTQ+ leaders paving the way for up-and-coming LGBTQ+ executives and board members, we're taking a quick dive into authentic leadership: how to define authentic leadership, the fundamentals of authentic leadership, and best practices for authentic leadership.

What is authentic leadership?

In one of the largest in-depth studies of leadership development ever undertaken, Harvard Business Review's researchers sought to answer the question "How can people become and remain authentic leaders?" 

Over the course of interviews with 125 leaders ranging between ages 23 and 93, they ultimately discovered "that these people did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills, or styles that led to their success." 

"Rather, their leadership emerged from their life stories," they wrote. "Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core. In doing so, they discovered the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective." 

This is encouraging news for all of us, including both aspiring and established leaders. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to authentic leadership. Rather, authentic leadership is centered around personal growth and development, building upon the capacities we all have to inspire and empower others. Next up, we'll take a look at three foundational principles of authentic leadership.

Fundamentals of authentic leadership

Authentic leadership isn't a rigid concept; what it means to lead authentically for one individual may look very different from another depending on their family of origin, sexuality, personality, and more. That being said, there are some qualities that authentic leaders have in common.

Authentic leaders are in tune with their life stories.

Harvard Business Review researchers interviewed the 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Businesses's Advisory Council, asking them to recommend "the most important capability for leaders to develop." The nearly unanimous answer? Self-awareness. 

Authentic leaders allow both positive and negative formative experiences to "give meaning to their lives," according to HBR researchers. "They reframed these events to rise above their challenges and to discover their passion to lead." In other words, leading authentically requires engaging with your story in all its fullness, leveraging both the good and the bad to teach you, guide you, and empower you as you empower others.

Authentic leaders live out their values and principles.

Knowing your story, and engaging with the lessons and principles learned therein, is just the beginning of authentic leadership. To lead authentically and effectively, it's vital for leaders to live out their values and principles. The HBR researchers put it this way: "Leadership principles are values translated into action."

For example, if diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are important to you, it's not enough to just talk about it or post about it, whether that's via a place like LinkedIn or your company's website. Instead, an authentic leader who values DEI ought to seek out ways they can actively be an inclusive colleague in team meetings or implement more diverse hiring practices if that's in their capacity to do so. Actions will define an authentic leader more than anything else.

Authentic leaders surround themselves with community.

Authentic leadership doesn't happen in a silo. In fact, researchers found that "authentic leaders build extraordinary support teams to help them stay on course." Immersing yourself in a community or network you trust can offer counsel, accountability, and support during times of uncertainty, hardship, and success.

Ultimately, leadership is about empowering others to fulfill their potential, whatever that looks like. To continue fulfilling your potential as an authentic leader, you'll need people in your corner who can offer wisdom, cheer you on, and guide you through the ups and downs.

Best practices for authentic leadership

Now that we've outlined three foundations of authentic leadership, let's take a look at a few more practical ways you can grow as an authentic leader. These best practices for authentic leadership can aid you as you seek to own your story, live out your values, and build community.

  • Define your mission. Take a big picture approach to leadership for a second. Think beyond your job title and career aspirations and consider your purpose, your mission. What drives your leadership? Hone in on that, and you’ll be on the path to genuine, authentic leadership.
  • Commit to self-improvement and professional growth. We’re all on our own journeys of growth and exploration, and people in positions of leadership are no exception. Self-awareness and the willingness to learn are crucial to growing as an individual and professional, while also helping you earn the respect of your team. What steps or resources can you take to better yourself and your leadership?  
  • Take responsibility for your actions. Authentic leaders live out their values and principles. But they won’t get it right every time. That’s why it’s important to take responsibility for your actions; admitting when you’re wrong and seeking ways to improve will not only help you become a more authentic leader, it also sets an example for a culture of inclusion.
  • Empower the people around you. Authentic leadership is both inward and outward looking. You’ll need to practice self-awareness to continue developing as a leader, and you’ll also be called to look outward and see how you can support the people around you in becoming the best version of themselves.
  • Practice vulnerability with your community. A robust support network offers accountability, encouragement, and wisdom for authentic leaders. To make the most out of these relationships, practice vulnerability. As you grow comfortable in sharing your leadership wins and losses, they’ll be better able to provide the specific insights you need to keep leading authentically.

Bring your authentic self to your next opportunity

AboveBoard exists to diversify executive leadership, empowering those who have been historically excluded from the executive ranks by offering transparent access to career opportunities. Wherever you are on your leadership journey, AboveBoard is a space where you can confidentially explore, consider, and choose to express interest in leadership opportunities that further your career goals. Our platform offers unprecedented access for executives to discover and pursue new opportunities with ease, agency, and confidence.

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