13 July 2022

Written by: Dr Joseph Sekhampu - COO, Milpark Education

Lately, I’ve been trying to come to terms with my identity as a leader and that of an authentic person. I have been questioning what my contribution is in the areas where I lead. What’s been on my mind lately is my role in a changing organisation and how I can contribute to the direction of the institution in the most authentic manner I can. We know that authenticity is a great leadership trait. But what does it mean for me and how do I build this into my leadership journey? In a world where we are taught to hide our true feelings and be ‘politically correct’, it's not always easy to find our own voice and speak from our hearts.

The word ‘authentic’ is generally associated with being real or genuine. For some people, the concept of authenticity conjures up an image of someone who is confident and unapologetic about who they are. I believe that authenticity is more than just being yourself. It’s about being true to who you are and what makes you unique. To be authentic requires a great deal of self-awareness and understanding who one is as an individual before attempting to lead others. For example, I am introverted and will need time alone every day, and it can be draining if everyone asks me about my weekend first thing every Monday morning at work! This contrasts with what many people believe about leaders, which is that they should be “on” at all times and that it is necessary for them to wear a mask of sorts so that they can be seen as successful. Authenticity means having the courage to do things differently from everyone else, even if it takes time or effort - and being willing to accept the consequences of doing so.

The world is changing at a faster pace than ever before. Technology is connecting people like never before, but it's also making the world feel more complex and uncertain. To lead in this world, leaders must show up as humans, lead from the heart, from their core values and in alignment with their true selves. Leadership that does not reflect this will not have the impact on others that it should. The key to authenticity is not just having the right values. Your behaviour has to demonstrate those values and beliefs. This means not only having a clear understanding of what your true self is but also being accountable to it. Authenticity is an important challenge for us all. We all have different levels of confidence, which stems from the exposure we've had in society, combined with our personality traits. Some people can be confident and transparent without a care as to how their authentic self affects others. It’s the lack of authenticity in others – or when they pretend to be caring but then really aren’t – that breeds distrust.

As leaders we have many responsibilities on our shoulders; we need to be good at our jobs, lead by example and help others grow, as well as be good friends with colleagues and stakeholders alike. Being able to do all this while also maintaining some semblance of a personal life can be challenging. It requires us to be vulnerable, open and sincere in our interactions with others. It requires us to be comfortable with expressing who we really are — both the good parts and the bad— without worrying about what other people think of us or whether they will like us anymore if they find out who we really are.

In my opinion, there is no other way to lead than authentically. There may be some who argue otherwise because they think that 'fake it till you make it' is the way forward, but I totally disagree with them. My personal experience has taught me that if you're not being true to yourself, then how can you expect others to follow? I'd like to think that I am on the right path in the authenticity maze. I am who I am, I am because you are, and it's not a façade or a role that I play. But there are moments when I wish that it were easier to be more authentic. The truth is that no matter how much we try to hide or deny our true selves, other people will eventually see through our façade or get tired of waiting for us to change. And when they finally do see who we are at our core — whether good or bad — they may not like what they see!