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How to identify an authentic leader

Dr Susanne Braun discusses how people can identify the characteristics of truly authentic leaders in the workplace and beyond, highlighting some important lessons we can learn from the political sector.

With the United States’ 2016 presidential race in full swing, candidates are gearing up for the final round of state caucuses and national selection conventions of each party. The spotlights are increasingly on the two Democrats and two Republicans, and any controversies that may arise. Did Clinton deliberately hide information using private mail servers? Is Cruz too wedded to the evangelical movement? Are Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants and border control a step too far? Elections undoubtedly shape our views of leaders, but what exactly are we looking for in leaders?

To an extent, we can identify a leader when we see one. Academic research suggests that every one of us holds mental prototypes of leaders. Elaborated knowledge structures of the characteristics that, in your personal view, distinguish between those you see as leaders - and those you do not. So when following any election, you will be likely to encode the characteristics the candidates show and then compare them to your own image of a leader.

Broadly, the characteristics that we are looking for in leaders are two-fold. They need to be competent, possessing the power and ability to pursue intended actions. But we also want these intentions to show concern for us, the people who they lead, rather than benefiting the pursuit of a personal ideal. The true test of authenticity comes when combining warmth and competence. Authentic leaders demonstrate both, and that’s what makes people trust and respect them. Authentic leaders remain true to themselves because they act in accordance with deeply held personal values.

Bear in mind, though, that with authentic leadership it not only counts what leaders say, but how they say it. When any leader shows their vulnerability, it prompts a divided response.

Is it ok for people in power to act as emotionally as we’ve seen in the US presidential race? In short, it depends. There are, however, several lessons to be learned from this race for every leader. Part of being an authentic leader is reflecting your feelings. Good leaders know their own true emotions - negative and positive ones - and will express them, while also being aware of their impact on people’s perceptions. Authentic leaders build close, nurturing relationships with others. In these relationships they show their own true emotions. But this is different to expressing personal emotions publicly. The key lies in aligning their actions with words. By making it clear what values they stand for, leaders become predictable and trustworthy.

An authentic leader takes on board multiple perspectives to inform balanced decisions, rather than insisting on personal opinion. Being an authentic leader means you should avoid hopping from one stance to another, be firm on what you stand for, and remain open to the views of others.

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