Updated: Nov 3
A few weeks ago, I presented The Nine Truths of Nonprofit Leadership to a group of leaders.
(It was an engaging workshop, so let me know if your organization would like to learn these truths too!)
The 8th Truth - Stay Authentic to Who You Are - brought up a question from the audience about how to be authentic when you feel those you are leading expect you to behave a certain way.
Why wasn't I advocating the tip "fake it 'til you make it"?
I totally understood this leader's question. When I first started out in a top leadership role, I was super nervous. I remember heading to the mall and buying a bunch of suits because I thought I should dress the part. They were really suits of armor to protect me from my fears about the new role.
These clothes blocked my authenticity. It wasn't how I normally dressed, I wasn't comfortable and I was putting on a bit of false front. It took a bit for me to figure this out, so I really empathize with the leader at my latest workshop presentation.
What I've observed since then is that the authentic leaders I know and work with are sincere, honest and conduct themselves with integrity. Because of this they hold strong and trusting relationships with their team.
These leaders also know that they play an important role in their organization and people are looking at them with more scrutiny.
I'll tell you the truth though, the feeling that there are expectations on ambitious nonprofit leaders to behave and relate in certain ways is real. People are expecting you to behave in certain ways.
Authentic leaders are able to clearly understand the expectations put upon them through a lens of self-awareness (and don't make up their own stories about them, like I must wear a suit). This allows them to share their honest thoughts on any given situation uniquely with staff members, board members, clients or community members.
- It’s definitely not all out on the table with anyone, like it with a best friend.
- It’s definitely true that different people hear different levels of information.
- It’s definitely not fake.
What helps leaders stay authentic?
Here are five tips to show up as an authentic leader at work:
ONE: Embrace the bigger picture
A beautiful thing about nonprofit leadership is the immense purpose baked into all leadership roles. You are in your role to impact communities and to make some type of change in our world. Keeping the broader goals of your work in mind helps you stay grounded when things feel strained or uncertain on any given day. In turn, this helps you feel less overwhelmed and unsure about how to manage your team. I’ve seen that leaders who are calm and certain are more able to bring their genuine selves to their roles.
TWO: Embody your values in action and words
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: leaders who know their values and lead with them in the forefront are happier, clearer and more effective. Continuing to deepen your self-awareness allows you to be aware of your influences, your impact and how you might shift your engagement for the betterment of the work you are all focused on. This helps you approach people with a Wise Mind (the place where your emotional brain and intellectual brain converge), which is a more authentic place to live.
THREE: Find common ground with everyone around you
Even in your personal life, you behave differently with your best friend, your gym buddy and the check-out person at the grocery store, yet you can genuinely connect and find common ground with all of them. Nothing about this changes when you are leading a team. You may act differently with different people on the team, yet you can genuinely connect and be yourself with all of them. Authentic leaders are especially versed at knowing what the different members of their team need to know and hear, as well as what is important to each of them.
FOUR: Seek feedback and act on it when it serves the organization
Leaders who are scared of being authentic are often also scared to ask for feedback from their team. If there are issues, it feels personal to them. Yet, if you want to be authentic in your relationships at work then asking for feedback and acting on what makes sense is an important step in building the trust and relationships that authenticity relies on. I know leading with candor is challenging for many leaders and I promise to write another blog post on this soon! In the meantime, check out this amazing book Thanks for the Feedback.
FIVE: Get support where you need it
New leaders are especially prone to not feeling authentic at work because they aren’t confident in their skills - and there are a lot of new parts of the job they don’t know how to do. It is your job to advocate for support from your board or your budget so you can learn, practice or expand the skills necessary for the leadership role. No one expects a new leader to know how to do everything. In fact, no one should expect any leader to know how to do everything. There are resources out there to support you in any way you need, you just need to seek them out.
You’ll notice the old advice that isn’t on this list: Fake it ‘till you make it.
People can tell a faker a mile away.
I hope these tips are useful for you, as I know it’s challenging to balance being yourself in a leadership role and managing others in being themselves. This is especially tough for new leaders, leaders managing through change, leaders feeling insecure, and leaders frustrated in their role.
I'd love to hear what insights you took from this post and if you're going to change-up anything you're doing in your role. I'd also love to hear if you have anything else to add.
Keep up the good work and let's stay connected!