The 3 Principles of Authentic Leadership

Last month, I introduced you to Authentic Leadership, a powerful leadership model uncovered during research for our portfolio of companies, Share On Purpose, Inc. Authentic Leadership is a type of leadership style that inspires trust and builds loyalty. Authentic Leaders demonstrate a level of personal character that inspires performance rather than demanding it from employees. It is the authentic leaders (rather than the culture) who actually CREATE an environment that facilitates employee engagement. That inspired employee engagement produces deep customer loyalty which naturally accelerates business performance. Most notably, these powerful trustworthy leaders can be found at ALL levels of the organization, not just the top.

Through several years of research, I identified three principles that all Authentic Leaders embody:

  1. They “assume positive intent.”
  2. They see manager-employee relationships as a two-way “value exchange.”
  3. They embody a commitment to self-improvement.

Assume Positive Intent

Many leaders are innately distrustful and politically motivated, whereas Authentic Leaders employ a powerful principle called “assume positive intent.” To assume positive intent means that no matter what another person does, the authentic leader does not judge their behavior but rather “assumes” that the person meant well (or at least did not mean to cause harm).

These leaders enter every exchange with an assumption that the person isn’t being deceptive or trying to cause harm. This “trust first” belief dynamically changes their communication with employees and instills an open and transparent culture.

When positive intent is first assumed, every person is given the benefit of the doubt. Trust is naturally extended that they were doing their best regardless of words or actions. This dramatically reduces judgement, which erodes trust and reduces the tendency of over-personalizing interactions . The Authentic Leader maintains a positive and productive energy, which translates to the team fortunate enough to work with them.

In speaking to Authentic Leaders about this principle, I’ve come to the realization they all share a common belief that the majority of workers who make mistakes or act selfishly, are either operating out of fear, are misinformed, or have not been shown a better way.

Assuming positive intent is the easiest authentic leadership principle to embody. It simply takes committed practice and a desire to assume positive intent, rather than be suspicious and judgmental.

Manager-Employee Value Exchange

The second principle of Authentic Leadership I’ve termed the “Manager-Employee Value Exchange.” Rather than seeing employee relationships from a “get” mindset, Authentic Leaders see manager-employee relationships as a mutual “value exchange.” If I, as the manager, want you to give me your best, then I must first give you my best.

These types of leaders naturally mentor and coach employees. They do so NOT to “get” more from employees, but rather to invest in them. It is this investment that ignites performance and balances the value exchange. In contrast, ineffective leaders require performance before investing in the team member, which is one-sided and does not build a win-win relationship.

Authentic Leaders see manager-employee connections as a relationship first and foremost. All relationships come with ups and downs and a flow of give and take. This win-win approach dynamically ignites loyalty and performance.

The value exchange does not, however, excuse poor performance. If an employee is not performing well, those issues should be openly addressed. If the employee does not improve performance, the Authentic Leader responds in a markedly different way than most corporate leaders do. Rather than seeing the employee as “bad,” the manager simply realizes that the employee is not holding up their end of the relationship and they discuss alternatives, including the employee transitioning out of the company over time. The mindset here is win-win and addressing the gap in the value exchange proactively.

This approach instills a win-win culture and strengthens the bond between managers and their staff. Executives who embody this style and thereby invest in employees through mentoring and coaching naturally “get more” from employee relationships, because the employee feels they are receiving something (beyond a paycheck) in return.

Me First Self-Improvement:

The third principle of Authentic Leadership is a “me first” commitment to self-improvement.

Rather than simply expecting staff to improve, Authentic Leaders role model improvement through their OWN commitment to self-improvement.

  • They read, study, and research topics and skills related to their areas of improvement.
  • They ask for feedback from employees as where they can be more effective as a leader.
  • They openly discuss their own developmental areas, rather than pretend these areas don’t exist.
  • They openly admit mistakes and surround themselves with others who do the same.

This simple, yet effective principle has a ripple effect across the organization as it deliberately creates an “improvement culture” that, over time, fosters a “performance culture.”

Our Share On Purpose research has revealed that it is Authentic Leaders who actually create the culture that inspires business performance. This missing link between culture and performance is essential to understand. There can be no performance culture without Authentic Leadership principles.

Next month we will challenge the decades-old research on the leadership “nature versus nurture” theories. Are Authentic Leaders naturally gifted or uniquely trained? What do you think?


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