Leadership begins with knowing who you are and what you believe. Authenticity is the need for leaders to be themselves regardless of the situation. For this reason, it is more than self-awareness. It is the ability to share the deepest and truest part of ourselves with others.
My undergraduate degree was in Business Management. The first thing we did was to identify successful leaders and write papers on how to mimic their behaviors. Textbooks were full of tips on how to do this and tests made certain we ingested the critical points that led to their success.
While it’s instructive to observe and learn from others, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Successful leaders understand that the path of leadership is a journey of discovery … about themselves. We are not textbooks to be read once and then put away to gather dust. Our lives are a living testimony to change, growth, and renewed hope.
Self-awareness makes it easier to us to view our choices through a lens that brings our values into focus. If we are self-aware, we can begin to understand how well our actions align with our beliefs, values, strengths and weaknesses.
Ironically, I found authenticity to be most important component while working as an undercover FBI agent. As you may guess, undercover work was about misrepresenting who I was to the targets of my investigation. I lied about my name, job, and address. I told them I was an expert in something I wasn’t and had a bogus set of credentials to back me up.
The details were no problem to fabricate with ease—and conviction. From organized drug gangs to Russian spies, I learned how to tell a lie with a straight face and get away with it. Even if the targets were suspicious of my weak background experience and limited professional expertise, I found the most convincing way to persuade them was to be honest about who I was as a person and share the deepest and truest part of myself.
My success as an undercover agent came from being myself—it attracted people to me. The only time I really ran into trouble was when I didn’t take the time to be authentic.
Being honest with others is not dependent upon the situation because an authentic person knows who they are in any given moment. They don’t flit from one belief system to another because of a fad, pressure from others, or circumstances.
Authenticity matters. Regardless of the situation, we respond to people who acknowledge the complexity of life and life’s decisions. No matter how hard I tried or how long I practiced, I ran into trouble when I pretended to have a different set of personal values. The game was up.
After I retired from the FBI, I completed a three-year graduate program at San Francisco Theological Seminary. I found that I used many of the same skills in the seminary that I developed as an FBI agent—the desire to get beneath all the layers of denial and uncover the truth about people.
The journey toward authenticity is twofold: first, discovering our personal values and beliefs, and, second, exhibiting behavior that is consistent with those same values and beliefs. We can be authentic leaders if we are committed to be being true to ourselves—regardless of the situation we are in or the people around us—so we can be real and genuine.
Let’s take a look at five ways you can be more authentic:
- Discover your strengths:
- Look inside of yourself and identify your strongest threads.
- Reinforce them with practice and learning.
- Carve out a role that draws upon your strengths everyday.
- Recognize that your greatest room for growth is in the areas of your greatest strengths.
- Spend time in identifying your weaknesses.
- Do not ignore them.
- Acknowledge that you cannot be talented in all areas.
- Find ways to manage your weaknesses so you can free up your time to hone your strengths.
- Rank the following values in order of importance: integrity, patience, honesty, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, compassion, perseverance, spirituality, joy, and discipline.
- Expand the list by adding other personal values that are important to you.
- Articulate the importance of each value to your life.
- Commit yourself to your personal values.
- Stay the course regardless of obstacles.
- Find ways to go over, under, or through the obstacles.
- Do not go around them—instead, overcome them.
- Remember that your behavior reflects your values.
- Create genuine relationships by being authentic.
- Authenticity builds trust and makes us more compelling and attractive leaders.
- Be prepared for the adversaries that will be created because you’ve remained true to your values and beliefs.
- Remember that leadership is not about being popular.
In essence, this is what it takes to be authentic: know what you believe and why you believe it. If you do, your world won’t fall apart when the unexpected shows up.