What does authentic leadership mean?

“The point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, and to use yourself completely – all your gifts, skills and energies – to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.”
— Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

thisIbelieveLooking for inspiration on authentic leadership, I visited the public radio web site, This I Believe. It includes over 125,000 essays in which people from all walks of life describe their core values. The quote above was mentioned several dozen times.

Why does that quote strike a nerve? It doesn’t say the things that you’d expect to hear in an essay about effective leadership. But somehow people find Bennis’ words inspiring when developing their own leadership style. Here are some reflections from their essays:

  • “I have been told that I am a natural leader and somebody to look up to. I have also been told if my heart is not in the goal, my leadership skills lack.”  (Jackson)
  • “There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve one’s skillset or work on an area that isn’t quite up to par. However, simply copying a successful leader isn’t leadership and it isn’t how those leaders got to where they are today.” (Gabriel)
  • “I do think that leaders often forget that they are ordinary people too, who also need constant guidance and seek for opportunities to learn.” (Murray)
  • “It is hard for a young, motivated individual to enjoy a process of becoming… If I use what I have learned so far in my life and have a positive attitude towards new ideas and different beliefs, I can be a more successful and effective leader.” (Elise)
  • “I am learning each day that it takes a strong person with a strong personality to become a leader. You have to hold fast in what you believe, but you also have to be able to let pride not get in the way.” (Rafeeq)
  • “To me, the best leaders are not sitting in an executive chair, or speaking in front of crowds. They are the people so dedicated to their cause that people can’t help to notice. This, I believe, is the leader I’m striving to become.” (Joshua)

Some of the  people who wrote these essays were formal leaders. Others were students or young professionals exploring what leadership means in their lives. But they all agreed that leadership involves more than a particular set of skills – it’s about how you show up. Livonia summarized authentic leadership well: “There is no easy road and no organized, detailed instruction guide that explains how you should become yourself; it is up to each of us to be who we really are and understand it in our efforts to become a leader.”

What does authentic leadership mean to you?

Dee Anne Bonebright


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