The 4 Skills of Authentic Leadership

This blog comes from executive coach, mindfulness expert and “Education for the Soul” Conference 2019 workshop host, Judi Stewart

“The only way to learn who we are is to sit down and listen to our minds.”

Dr Tracey Stors, Professor of Behaviour and Systems Neuroscience, Rutgers University

In leadership, we often talk about the need to be authentic, but what does this mean? 
At its root,  authenticity involves being true to yourself and the essence of who you are as a person. Likewise, on a leadership level, it means making daily choices and actions that are aligned to your vision, values and your sense of vocation.
Working with School Leaders, I have seen that when they lead with authenticity, integrity self-regulation and personal nourishment are hallmarks of their personal leadership style.
The challenge is that in order for leaders to learn to lead authentically, they must first understand themselves.
Because if we don’t know who we are, then how do we know when we are being authentic? Who is this person in this School Leadership role and what is the basis of their decision making and relationship with others?
To answer these important questions and help leaders develop the strong self-understanding that is essential for Authentic leadership, I believe there are 4 skills they must work on:
1. Learning to pay attention
2. Clarifying and re-clarifying
3. Being able to objectively describe our direct experience
4. Working with our attitudes

1. Learning to pay attention

If we can’t focus because we are deep in worry, in our ‘to do’ lists or we are rehearsing what we will say, and how we will say it – we miss essential data.
Likewise, if we don’t feel at ease with ourselves, with others and the situation then this will lead to anxiety, stress and guilt. One burden piles on top of another, making our mental load we carry get heavier and ultimately affecting our health, our ability to lead and our ability to be effective in all aspects of life.
Meanwhile, when we focus, we are more effective, we feel better and improve the clarity of our thoughts, our decisions and our communication.
Meditation has been proven to help with this, as the very basis of the practice is attention, and attention leads to awareness.
Meanwhile, a meta-analysis of mindfulness, by Sharma and Rush (2014), demonstrated a positive change in physiological outcome measures linked to stress , when those being tested had completed an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course.

2. Clarifying and re-clarifying

The world doesn’t standstill and nor do we.  We are not the same people as we were last year or even last week and neither are the people we interact with or the events we encounter.  Everything is transient and evolving.
This is the same with authenticity.  There may be core threads but there will be subtle changes.  This process of knowing our authentic self is continually evolving, so staying vigilant to who we are in this moment is important.
When we have both the mental and emotional capacity to engage with the ever-shifting sands of both personal and professional growth, we are able to feel sure of the ground upon which we stand, even when those around us may feel otherwise.

3. Describing our Direct Experience (The phenomenological approach)

Human beings are story tellers; from our stories about the weekend, to stories as lessons, to the pleasure we perceive from many art forms, stories keep us connected to our experience of what it means to be human. Stories are natural, they delight or horrify us.
In knowing ourselves and being authentic; there is a need to be objective with the stories we are telling ourselves. Otherwise, we can get swept up by the story and tossed into a whirlwind of emotion.
The answer to developing an objective stance on our stories can be found in what science refers to as the “phenomenological approach”. A lot of research, especially qualitative research, relies heavily on this approach which involves describing one’s own internal and external experiences.
We can use this approach to examine ourselves and set aside our biases and assumptions, and in doing so, providing a clearer view of who we are, the basis of our decision making and actions. It is a powerful tool to gain insight into our and other people’s motivations.
When we are supported to understand our experiences in this way, we are freed up from the tyranny of old, limiting ways of engaging with our stories. We are supported in finding methods of engagement that are supportive of our true identities – our authentic selves.

4. Attitudes

The last ‘how’ of opening up and getting to know our authentic selves is about the way we use the above tools, our attitude.  We can too readily be A+ students at using the critical voice in our internal chatter and in appraising our actions.
However, if we are willing to instead trust ourselves, be patient and let go of the clutter, we can make change with ease.
This is not a mushy ‘I won’t do anything, everything is fine’ approach, but a way to be discerning, so that we are honest about what is here and can turn toward what needs doing.  It balances self-care and kindness with wisdom and responsibility.


Do you want to lead with greater authenticity? 

We believe that authentic School Leadership is crucial for both supporting great leadership and developing healthy schools.
Yet being an authentic School Leader can be exceedingly challenging, particularly in the context of an education system which has not, as yet, found a consistent way to enable School Leaders to embrace their vulnerability and true sense of personhood.

The current education landscape, can at times feel harsh, brutal and a very unsafe place to show up as our True selves, but it is necessary.
Our schools, our young people need to be led by leaders who understand, as in the words of American author Brene Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.’

In order for that to happen and to learn to show up in this way, leaders need regular spaces where they can take off their leadership cloak and be themselves; a space where they can show their vulnerabilities, be open and honest about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings they are having and be supported to make sense of these in relation to the demands of the role.

Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have a space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects. Yet School Leaders often have no such equivalent to support them on their journey towards greater authenticity.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls for School Leaders to provide such a space where leaders can:
– Talk through the challenges you’re currently facing in your role
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help you overcome the issues you’re experiencing
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they have had on you as a leader and as a person.
– Gain clarity in your thoughts and your current situation

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


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