Donna Rae Smith: Authentic Leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT August 31, 2012
Donna Rae Smith: Authentic Leadership

Can you recognize an authentic Picasso painting from a really good reproduction? Unless you’re an art expert, probably not. Fortunately, authentic people are easier to spot.

We know authentic leaders because their words and actions are aligned, and we know them by the way they make us feel — inspired, motivated, and ready to jump on board in support of their vision. Truly authentic leaders have a way of leveraging their authenticity to positively impact the lives of others.

What are some of the key traits of authentic leaders?

Authentic leaders know and accept themselves. At the core of authenticity is self-knowledge and acceptance. They aren’t trying to be someone else. They are genuine. They lead in the truest sense, rather than being a mimicker of others. Because these leaders are fundamentally comfortable with themselves, they foster an environment where others feel at ease to be authentic too.

Richard Branson comes to mind because he certainly isn’t trying to fit into a cookie-cutter mold of a CEO. Not surprisingly, he has created brands that reflect his self-confidence and uniqueness.

Authentic leaders demonstrate vision. There’s a tendency in today’s economy to lead by the bottom line numbers. That’s understandable, but it’s misguided. Of course, the numbers are important, but they can’t be the sole driver in decision-making.

Authentic leaders are motivated by a vision of the companies they are trying to build and the service they want to provide, and that vision guides every decision. That vision is consistently communicated in their words and actions. It’s that vision that motivates employees, earns their commitment, and gives the workforce something to rally around.

Be willing to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. I like to say that authentic leaders do the “harder, right thing.” By that I mean authentic leaders have the courage to do the right thing even when it’s not easy (and it’s often not easy). Because authentic leaders are true to themselves, they are able to keep true to their principles and vision. That motivation enables them to do the harder, right thing time and again.

Why is this important? Repeating what’s familiar is easier, but it doesn’t move you forward. Instead it keeps you stuck in the current state, potentially losing time and money. Doing the harder, right thing initiates movement and enables progress.

Speak from the heart. We all know the feeling of listening to someone who speaks from the heart. We feel connected and drawn to them. We are energized and engaged. When leaders speak from the heart, it translates to enhanced effectiveness and productivity. Those around them are motivated by their sincerity, honesty and passion.

Engender trust. Authentic leaders create trust between themselves and their employees. It’s pretty easy to spot inauthentic behavior — when values, words and actions don’t align. People catch on to this, and they are rightfully reluctant to trust.

One Bright Side client, a supply chain executive representing 120,000 employees, has modeled this well: During a recent calibration session, he was very open with his team about his biases. He asked others to call him out if he couldn’t provide logical, rational arguments for his ratings suggestions.

By revealing his true thoughts, he fostered trust within the group. Almost immediately, others felt comfortable to acknowledge their own biases. This frankness allowed the group to work cooperatively, rather than thwart progress with hidden agendas.

Recognizing the elements of authenticity is a first step to becoming an authentic leader. Ultimately, authenticity requires courage: the courage to trust yourself and your vision and a willingness to put yourself “out there” — to expose your ideas, your thoughts, your inspiration, and your values to others. By doing so, you give those around you something real to latch on to and a reason to follow you.

Speaking from the heart is a good place to start. It doesn’t have to be a public conversation — yet. Start with yourself. Are you leading authentically? What is your greater vision for the future?

Who do you consider an authentic leader? What behaviors do they exhibit that tell you they’re authentic? What is the impact of their authenticity, and what can you learn from them?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit or contact Donna Rae Smith at