Authentic Leaders: A Rare and Endangered Species



Commentary by Gene Kamena and Captain (USN) Randy Blackmon
Air War College


9/17/2012 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -  -- Authentic leaders are a rare breed.

The sighting of an authentic leader, one who leads others and makes things happen, is uncommon to find in their natural habitat. Many leaders like to think of themselves as authentic and confess to be so, but are found suspect because they occur in the rarefied air of academia or in hindsight, a condition when reality and fact are obscured by time and distance.

Since spotting authentic leaders happens so infrequently, perhaps it is useful to describe in a bit more detail what an authentic leader is, illustrate their distinguishing features and state why their continued existence matters.

An authentic leader is a person who is grounded in reality, truth, and purpose. The reality of personal capabilities and limitations frames their actions. Authentic leaders have an accurate view of who they are and what they are capable of accomplishing.

Truth determines how authentic leaders deal with people, and situations. Caring for the truth makes authentic leaders genuine. They understand their life's purpose and it is that very purpose that sparks what they do as a leader. Authentic leaders know who they are and understand what they can accomplish.

Reality - determines what they do

Truth - frames how they do what they do

Purpose - defines why they do what they do

Characteristics of authentic leaders include:

· Honesty: They are honest in their self-view. They are also candid in their words, thoughts, and deeds.
· Transparency: They possess no hidden motivation or tangential reasons for their actions. Their life's purpose is the driving force behind their leadership. They understand, communicate, and exemplify their purpose for leading others.
· Consistency: Grounding in reality, truth, and purpose ensures consistency in behavior. Authentic leaders do not suffer from mood-personality swings.
· Fairness: They are fair-minded in their dealings with people and face challenges openly. They look for and work to develop the best in the people whom they lead.
· Commitment: They are life-long learners and are committed not to perfection, but rather to excellence in their own lives and for excellence in others.

This article began by stating that authentic leaders are uncommon, albeit exceptional. There are many reasons as to why authentic leaders tend to be scarce, particularly in large organizations. Large organizations demand conformity. Acting with a pure sense of purpose to do what is right regardless of consequence can be perceived as "out-of-step" with the norm or the culture of the organization. Leaders who do not comply with the norm are often seen as threats and "non-team" players. Many senior leaders say they value authentic leadership, yet if this was true the species of an authentic leader would not be threatened.

As is with all endangered species, authentic leaders and authentic leadership must be nurtured and protected. In fact, in order in ensure the continued existence of authentic leaders, breeding programs are required. So, how are authentic leaders bred? Well, actually they are not bred. They evolve and develop, and transform. Any quest for authentic leadership begins by first determining one's purpose for wanting to lead others. The search for purpose requires two essential ingredients: truth and reality. Authentic leaders seek the truth about their selves and have the ability to handle the reality of that truth.

Becoming an authentic leader is not complicated, but it is also not easy. Facing the truth and dealing with reality can be unsettling. The benefits, however, of authentic leadership include: the individual coming to terms with their true self, doing away with pretense, and acting on a sense of purpose and a set of values that precludes selfish and self-serving actions. An additional benefit is that since authentic leaders are so rare, followers notice, they are attracted, and they appreciate the difference between an authentic leader and one who is not genuine. Authentic leaders attract to them authentic followers.

Be genuine, be real, and be authentic.

Lead on!