3 Essential Practices of an Authentic Leader (feat. Melissa Bernstein)
Could striving to become a perfect leader keep you from becoming an effective leader?
Authenticity is a buzzword commonly cited in articles discussing effective leadership, but the journey to actually becoming an authentic leader requires more introspection than discussion.
While it may feel more natural for leaders to drive their teams to success through engagement initiatives and goal-driven incentives, effective leadership is consistently attributed to a leader’s ability to be authentic. Authenticity informs trust, which improves team loyalty, performance, and engagement.
Melissa Bernstein is an entrepreneur, creative, and working mother of six. As co-founder of the wildly successful toy company Melissa & Doug, Melissa has spent the last 30 years helping children discover themselves, their passions, and their purpose through open-ended play. But her own radical self-discovery didn’t begin until later in life when she realized her inability to accept herself, imperfections and all, was keeping her from being an authentic leader.
In this episode of The Enlightened Executive, we explore how Melissa has evolved from a stoic leader who repressed her emotions to a more authentic and conscious leader who accepts and embraces the full spectrum of emotions. Based on Melissa’s journey, here are 3 practices you can begin today to become a more authentic and effective leader.
1. Prioritize Self-Discovery
Authenticity requires leaders to be open to change, willing to take risks, and brave enough to embark on a journey of self-discovery. Self-discovery is about being honest with yourself and others regarding your strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.
Start by taking some time to reflect on who you are. Take time out (daily if you can) to journal your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Notice when you are being inauthentic and try to identify the underlying reasons why. Consider these prompts:
I want ____. I think I want this because _____.
I am feeling ____. How I can share what I’m feeling with others is ____.
Leaders looking to improve their authenticity through self-discovery can also:
- Encourage feedback about your strengths and weaknesses. Create a safe environment for others to share their thoughts and opinions, and stay receptive to any constructive criticism.
- Seek out relationships with others who are authentic and learn from their behaviors.
- Listen to podcasts and read books from others who have embarked on a similar journey. You will see you are not alone and that can embolden you to be more authentic about your own feelings.
Discovering your true self, and accepting that identity, is the first step to becoming an effective and authentic leader.
2. Cultivate Self-Acceptance
Presenting a carefully curated version of yourself reveals a core belief that parts of you are simply unacceptable.
Before you can practice authenticity, practice self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is what fuels authenticity.
Like many leaders, Melissa adopted the narrative that leadership looked like being strong, hiding weaknesses and human fallibility. She repressed anything that didn’t support the image of a perfect leader, denying the truth of her introverted, creative, deeply feeling self. Once she accepted those parts of herself, she was able to lead as her true authentic self.
You can cultivate self-acceptance by:
- Reconsidering your perceived strengths and weaknesses. This is where gathering feedback from others can help you reset your self-perception.
- Reexamining the narratives causing you to hide parts of yourself. Where are you judging you? What are you ashamed by?
- Reevaluating the expectations you place on yourself as a leader. What do you think you “should” be like as a leader and is that really true? What evidence can you find where that is not true?
It’s crucial that leaders spend time reflecting on their core values, motivators, and responses to different situations so they can learn to accept who they actually are, rather than who they think they’re supposed to be. By modeling self-acceptance as a leader, you become a role model for authenticity on your team. A more authentic team is a more trustworthy team, which fuels its success.
3. Embrace Vulnerability
It’s challenging to practice authentic leadership when societal norms reinforce the narrow idea that leaders must be strong, stoic, and faultless: the opposite of vulnerable.
Melissa believed that feeling deeply was a stigma and exposing her emotions to the world would cause her to be shunned.
The truth is, when we reveal our humanity, it makes us more trustworthy and relatable in the eyes of the other people on our team.
To be an authentic leader, learn to embrace the full spectrum of emotions, not just the ones that project an image of perfection. This act of vulnerability builds trust and connects you with your team on an emotional level, resulting in more authentic relationships.
You can practice vulnerability by:
- Owning your mistakes and shortcomings. This demonstrates to others that you are honest and trustworthy.
- Being transparent about your decisions and sharing your thought process with your team.
- Making space for you and your team to freely experience the full spectrum of emotions.
Communicating openly and vulnerably encourages others on your team to do the same. This establishes psychological safety and encourages authenticity from the team as a whole.
Melissa also shares…
- The power of listening to your internal voice.
- The importance of education in finding self-acceptance.
- How to embrace the past while stepping bravely into the future.
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