The Imperfect Quest of an Authentic Leader

“Authentic leadership” is a term I have heard or read about in so many places recently. This is a leadership approach which involves having the courage to bring our whole selves to our leadership practice and is advocated by some of my heroes in organisational psychology such as Brene Brown, Amy Edmondson, Michael West and Adam Grant. It is viewed as a means to create cultures where our teams feel psychologically safe to take interpersonal risks without fear of negative consequences because they trust their leaders and feel confident their views will be valued and heard.

The popularity of an authentic leadership approach is honestly a relief to me. I don’t have an alternative option. I believe this is because of my grounding in mental health nursing and the significant influence of Carl Rogers’ humanistic theory on my development as a nurse and a person. Rogers described the conditions which are needed to be present within a therapeutic relationship in order for the person to grow. One of these was congruence. This is a state where our external presentation of self and our internal emotions or experience are consistent. In a clinical sense this requires the nurse to notice in themselves, and in the people they are supporting, when this is not the case and use reflection to explore what is underpinning this. It is a commitment to this reflective practice that I believe underpins my ability and desire to be an authentic leader as it requires a deep level of investment in the development of my self awareness and emotional intelligence. I am also acutely aware of the implication of in-congruence in my leadership. If my actions, facial expressions and demeanour do not reflect my words, my team will doubt my sincerity which will ultimately impact on their ability to trust me.

In my career, I have been invited to present to some amazingly talented groups of nurses and midwives. I am often asked to talk about a topic I am seen to have some expertise or knowledge in which I can share with the audience for the benefit of their development. I am commonly asked to provide a biography which is a summary of my achievements and hopes to justify to the audience why they might dedicate some of their valuable time to listen to me. Whilst I find these things very embarrassing to write, it helps keep my inner critic at bay and reminds me I have something of value to share. However, recently I have made a conscious decision to take a risk. To expose my vulnerability in my biography and “out” myself as imperfect and incomplete. For example, when asked to speak about writing for publication, I shared that I am dyslexic and have received many rejections as an author. In my talk, I described the purposeful actions I need to take to enable me to write as I do not possess a natural ability or talent despite my CV implying I might. My aim was to demystify writing for publication and demonstrate that it takes huge investment and effort and therefore I have to start with exploring my internal motivation to write. When I can find that “sweet spot” of feeling passionate about the topic and having a desire to share my learning more widely, writing becomes essential and energising as opposed to a burdensome task. The audience appeared to find this a refreshing take on writing for publication and described feeling inspired and motivated to start their writing journey.

I recently took a similar risk internally with my team. They are used to me appearing on a Monday morning full of beans and desperate to celebrate their successes and share the most recent achievements of the Academy. I often receive comments about my apparent unlimited energy levels an unwavering optimism. This is not a performance, I can ordinarily authentically own those observations. However, on that particular week I was returning from annual leave where I had been unavoidably focused on work. We had an issue which need my attention and the impact of this had been quite significant on my own psychological safety. It had also required me to compromise the attention I could give to my children, which had left me with feelings of guilt that impacted very negatively on my energy. I made the decision to share this with the team and to seek their help. I demonstrated to them my vulnerability and was open about my challenges. My usual positivity would have been a performance, in-congruent and inauthentic and therefore did not feel like an option.

I describe this as a risk because I was concerned that my vulnerability may be perceived as a weakness and my team my feel insecure in my leadership. I usually pride myself in offering psychological containment for the challenging emotions of others but rarely seek that containment myself. It felt exposing and I was concerned about the judgement they might make of me. What emerged was quite the opposite. I received validation and support both publicly and privately. Team members who had also been impacted by the issue felt their own emotions were recognised and validated. They went over and above to respond to my request for help and attempted to resolve the issue without question. Most significantly the types of conversation I had with my team changed. I sensed a deeper level of honestly and a willingness to share personal perspectives that I had not received before.

My sense is that by sharing my own vulnerabilities, I have given permission for those around me to do the same – to admit we are not perfect and seek out each others help. This has made me think about authentic leadership not just as a philosophy of leadership but as a set of applied and purposeful behaviours which expose our imperfections and demonstrate our vulnerabilities. My note of caution is that I applied these behaviours following significant periods of reflection, which enabled me to share my challenges in a way which felt meaningful for the team but also personally safe for me to do so. This has been supported by a coach and a peer group of like minded leaders who have informed my thinking and offered me the container I require to take these brave leadership actions. My conclusion is that I am imperfect in my authenticity but that I will make a conscious commitment to noticing in-congruence in my self and others. I will purposefully initiate the safe spaces which enable honesty and taking interpersonal risks so that those I have the privilege to influence reap the benefit of a culture that is underpinned by trust.

If you are interested in hearing from the people who have informed my thinking and my leadership perspective I have mentioned in my blog I recommended starting with the below links.

Brenne Brown Anatomy of Trust (abridged) – Bing video

Amy Edmondson Building a psychologically safe workplace | Amy Edmondson | TEDxHGSE.mp4 – Bing video

Michael West Michael West: Compassionate and inclusive leadership – Bing video

Adam Grant Are you a giver or a taker? – Bing video

Carl Rogers Carl Rogers on Person-Centered Therapy Video – Bing video

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