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Business / Economics

Authentic leadership – leading with heart, not ego

todayMarch 18, 2024 2

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Opinion Piece by Marlize Horn


The idea of Authentic Leadership in the business world gained significant attention in the early 2000s when Bill George’s book “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value” was published. Although Authentic Leadership only became prominent over two decades ago, its principles align well with other leadership qualities, such as ethics and integrity.

The essence of being an authentic leader is to be true to yourself, to stay grounded in your value system and to build trust with your colleagues and team by taking ownership of both successes and failures. It is also about self-awareness of your strengths, development areas, intentions, and understanding what triggers you.

Being an authentic leader, you act from the heart and intend to impact your team and the broader organisation positively. A leader’s title is just the vehicle of authority and legitimacy through which they act. As the saying goes, “trust is earned”, so too does it apply to authenticity in leadership; it is earned over time. Authentic leadership doesn’t manipulate to gain short-term compliance; it inspires to foster long-term commitment and growth. It transcends position and power and embodies the change you wish to see, guiding with empathy and leading by example in every action and decision.

To me, authentic leadership, in its most simplistic terms, means to be the leader you want to follow, to be honest about your intentions and to focus on “we” instead of “me”.

In my 29 years of experience in the corporate world in South Africa and Namibia, I have encountered many authentic leaders who have enriched and informed my journey as a leader. However, there were also leaders in my path with less than genuine traits, which just encouraged and motivated me to do better and be better as a leader.

Over the years, I have learned in abundance from all the leaders I worked with, whether they were authentic in their approach or not. Life is always about learning and developing, even under challenging circumstances. If you do not make the most of any given learning or growing opportunity, it is an unnecessary waste and missed opportunity in your own development journey.

As the word implies, authentic leadership is often associated with the qualities of genuineness and truth, which are key pillars of a strong and effective leadership approach. Such leaders possess deep self-awareness that encompasses a keen understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All authentic leaders exhibit similar traits, including empathy,

ethical decision-making, courage, resilience, servant leadership, and passion. The element of sincerity in their interactions and not engaging with others with an agenda stands out.

In my experience, authentic leaders value honesty and transparency in communication. It’s not the loudest voice that defines authentic leadership but the most genuine one that listens and responds with integrity. They willingly share information with their team and peers and are open about their own challenges and uncertainties. They listen attentively, are comfortable showing their vulnerability or revealing their weaknesses, and seek help and guidance when needed. On the other hand, leaders who lack authenticity may claim to have everything under control and refuse help or support from others. This behaviour is often ego-driven and can hinder the team’s success.

An essential quality of authentic leaders is their consistency. They demonstrate the same behaviour and values every day, whether in their personal or professional lives. They don’t pretend to be someone they’re not and make decisions based on their principles and values, even when faced with difficult choices. Authentic leaders are also willing to take risks and confront challenges head-on. They dare to stand up for what’s right, even if it’s not in their own best interests. This leads me to another essential quality of an authentic leader, and that is accountability. Authentic leaders hold themselves accountable for their actions, decisions and commitments and follow through on their responsibilities. This creates a sense of reliability and integrity.

The benefits of authentic leadership for an organisation are endless. Leaders who embrace authenticity positively impact organisational culture, enhancing employee engagement, building strong teams and contributing to overall success. In today’s intricate business landscape, authentic leaders serve as a compass, directing organisations towards sustainable growth and success.

Becoming an authentic leader in the dynamic world of business can be challenging, but it also offers an opportunity to demonstrate courage and resilience by standing up for what is right and acting in your team’s and the organisation’s best interests, even when it means standing alone or being sidelined. This can be challenging, especially when faced with obstacles and setbacks in an environment that may not always prioritise authenticity.

By remaining committed to promoting genuine leadership can inspire other leaders and create a positive impact on their team and a ripple effect in the organisation. Authentic leaders prioritise serving the team’s and the organisation’s needs over seeking personal power or authority. Their infectious passion for the team’s success fosters a culture of trustworthy leadership. This, in turn, empowers others, encourages collaboration, and places the team’s development above their individual growth.

Leaders should always remember to stay true to themselves and lead authentically, even in challenging situations. Authentic leadership, however, does not demand perfection. Their openness to feedback, whether positive reinforcement or constructive criticism, sets authentic

leaders apart. They perceive such feedback as an opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth.

In my journey as a leader, I make it a point to reflect on my actions and decisions at the end of each day. I aim to ensure that my decisions are motivated by pure intentions and geared towards serving the greater good, without bias towards personal gain or ego. By doing so, I hope to set an example for future leaders and inspire others to lead with integrity and purpose.

In today’s world, we must acknowledge and celebrate those who lead authentically, guided by unwavering values and principles. These leaders build lasting connections and inspire others to follow their lead with an open heart and a selfless spirit.

When given the privilege to lead, do so with heart, not ego.

Written by: Staff Writer

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