Over the past 50 years, leadership scholars and researchers have conducted over 1,000 studies in search of a definitive leadership style or set of characteristics that make for the most effective leaders — all to no avail. Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership, suggests that research has identified no single, specific profile because the very thing that makes leaders successful is fostering their own, unique leadership style. In George’s research, which he identifies as the largest in-depth study of leadership development, he examined a cross section of highly effective emerging leaders, mid-level managers, and CEOs. George and his research team were unable to identify any universal leadership characteristics, styles, or skills. They concluded that great leadership does not come about by trying to become a replica of someone else, but by demonstrating authenticity. Great leaders recognize how critical life experiences shape their leading, consciously apply those lessons to their leading, and guide followers from their core purpose and values.
A key practice of authentic leadership is developing one’s self-awareness. When the 75 members of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked what capability was most important for leaders to develop, the nearly unanimous answer was: self-awareness. As Daniel Goleman suggests in Working with Emotional Intelligence, one cannot change what one cannot see. Ironically, as leaders move to higher and higher levels in an organization, they are more and more insulated from honest feedback. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for leaders to recognize how they are perceived, and to understand their impact in the organization. For leaders to be effective, it is critical that they seek honest feedback, observe their impact on others, and consciously self-correct in the course of their leading.
Authentic leadership also requires a thorough inventory of one’s leadership values and purpose. Unfortunately, too many leaders find themselves “sleepwalking” through leadership, accepting one promotion after the next, without doing any meaningful reflection on why they are leading, what they stand for as leaders, and what they want to accomplish. Exemplary leaders are clear about their values and purpose, and they act accordingly. In the day-in-and-day-out of leading, they look to their values and purpose as an inner compass to guide their decision making, and are true to their principles even when under great pressure. Especially in a time where people have grown distrustful of leaders, authenticity is a key attribute in leading effectively.