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Three Simple Questions Authentic Leaders Ask

by Henna InamSeptember 2015

Maria, an executive coaching client, was stuck. She had an employee that was underperforming and Maria was under some pressure from other departments to fire her. She had been putting off having a conversation with this employee for several months thinking that this person’s performance would turn around. It didn’t. Maria felt stuck because she thought the employee had some useful skills but clearly others felt otherwise. The pressure was mounting. What should Maria do? Follow her gut? Succumb to the pressure?

Most of us want to be more authentic and inspired in our leadership. However, in my executive coaching and speaking work, I often talk with leaders who find themselves stuck between what they want to do and what the organization demands. Leaders wonder whether being authentic in the workplace would be a career-limiting move.

In my book Wired for Authenticity I share three simple questions you can ask to be more authentic in your leadership. Here they are:

  • Who am I being right now?
  • What is happening around me?
  • Which parts of me will serve the greatest good in this moment?

Surprised? Yes, there are myths about what authenticity really is that cause us to wonder whether we can be authentic in workplaces. We often think authenticity is “this is who I am, this is what I want, take it or leave it”. This definition of authenticity no longer serves us because as leaders of our world we have to hold a tough paradox – our full and authentic self-expression that inspires us as well as our impact on others so we can be trusted leaders who serve the people and stakeholders we lead.

In the book, I define authentic leadership as “the fullest expression of me for the benefit of we”. I describe authentic leadership as a practice, a moment-by-moment decision we make to show up in our authentic selves – rather than a destination to get to. I define our authentic selves as a state where we are centered, creative, adaptive and inspired.

We need a new definition of authenticity for times that are changing rapidly and require us to adapt quickly to serve the greatest good in this moment. This calls on us to fully develop all parts of whom we are and to step into our authentic selves as we make decisions, choosing which part of ourselves will serve the greatest good in this moment. It requires that we make these decisions not from a habitual persona, but from a mindful place that is inspired rather than fearful.

The Three Questions in Action

Here’s how these three questions served my executive coaching client:

Coach: Who are you being right now?

Maria: Well, I guess I am being someone who doesn’t want to deliver bad news. I am feeling like I’m under the influence of a saboteur, “the avoider” who dislikes unpleasant conversations. I don’t want to be unkind to her but I am also feeling a lot of pressure to do something. She is clearly not getting results but she does have some valuable skills. I feel quite stuck.

(In our executive coaching work, we had worked together to discover both values important to this client as well as “saboteur” thought patterns, parts of her that often got in the way of her being effective. Kindness is a value important to her and she is working on developing more of a stomach for having difficult conversations). This first question brought her into a greater awareness of who she was being in this situation.

Coach: What’s happening around you?

Maria: Well there is mounting pressure to fire her. She is getting increasingly frustrated about the criticism from the other departments. The credibility of our department is under question, and frankly my credibility as a leader is coming into question.

(This question is excellent for you to get a view of what the needs are of various stakeholders you lead and also what the environment is calling for).

Coach: Which parts of you will serve the greatest good in this moment?

Maria: Well I want to call on my values of kindness and honesty. I also need to call on the part of me that is already courageous – and make sure I get myself centered to have this conversation with her.

(This question builds upon the fact that who we are is not fixed. Think about it. Are we the same person when we are fearful as we are when we’re fully relaxed and feeling powerful? This question is great to give you the opportunity to take a step back and recognize what values are really important to you, or a sense of purpose that drives you, and align them with what is needed right now, so you get out of being stuck. You make decisions from a place of inspiration rather than from a place of a “should”. Anytime we make decisions from this more resonant place, we are more likely to influence others and implement more powerfully, and also feel more confident and inspired in the process).

We talked through what was possible when she stepped into these parts of herself. By shifting who she was being in that moment, she was able to open up to new actions that she had not thought possible before. I challenged her to have the conversation within 24 hours. She reported back that it went really well. She was able to give the feedback, do it in a way that was kind and honest. The employee was able to receive and internalize the feedback. Together they agreed to move the employee to a position where her skills were more suited. Importantly, through this process Maria grew in her ability to influence more powerfully and be more confident in the decisions she was making.

Here’s my challenge for you. Try these three questions as you face a decision at work. How can they help you influence more powerfully and be more authentic in the choices you are making?

And if you would like to learn about the seven practices of authenticity in the book Wired for Authenticity here is a link to some complementary resources. Curious about how authentic you are? Here’s a complimentary 5-minute assessment you can take.

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