There is much talk about authentic leadership these days, and while it’s an important concept that deserves attention, it’s not necessarily clear yet what it means. And so I would like to offer a definition, or rather a metaphor to define this somewhat enigmatic concept.
Authentic leadership, I have found, is like surfing a wave. It’s moving into a form of leadership in which we allow ourselves to be in a state of not knowing how problems will be solved or by who they will be solved. It’s growing comfortable with being in a state of not knowing the answers, which is completely contrary to traditional leadership thinking in which leaders are supposed to be the ones with all the answers.
Authentic leadership means we trust the people we work with and find joy in discovering collaborative solutions. It means that we never push too hard, and we also never rest on our laurels. Most importantly it means that every challenge we face, no matter how sizable or complex, is met with a kind of Zen. For example, we say to our challenges “Interesting situation” or “I’m noticing that we haven’t accounted for this variable” or “I wonder what lesson we’ll learn from this” or better still we say, “Hmmmmm” while taking a deep breath and relaxing.
It’s like surfing a wave because we don’t push our way to a solution like trying to go faster than the wave, and we also don’t let the wave do the work entirely for us, but rather we work with the wave, sensing and matching our movements to its size and motion. It’s a delicate balance in which we just do our part of riding the wave and making minor movements to guide the board that carries us one way or another. The wave does the heavy work of carrying us forward, much like an organization or group of people set upon a common purpose.
As soon as we think we can control the wave it either over takes us or leaves us behind, or we crash. Authentic leadership means we trust. It means we breathe. It means we listen. We learn. And we go with the flow of a broader culture of people united under a common purpose. It’s not controlling, pushing or leveraging—it’s surfing the wave with people and becoming one with the wave. It’s not demanding—it’s nudging our board through inspiration and empowerment. It’s curving and dancing through vision and purpose.
Like the expert surfer who ultimately knows the wave is in charge, the authentic leader ultimately knows that the awesomeness of her ride has more to do with how much she’s in tune with the organization, those bonded through common purpose.