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Authentic Character

The time is always right to do what is right.

– Martin Luther King, Jr

A mindful leader has awakened to his or her true meaning, purpose, and values. Hopefully, those values align with a strong sense of integrity, character, passion, and people-centered leadership. The authentic leader takes these values and overtly leads with them.

The people surrounding and working for an authentic leader recognize and witness the values of that leader every day. They know the leader genuinely believes in and lives those values, both at work and at home. In Zen, this authenticity and naturalness is shizen. Shizen inspires confidence in followers, leading to increased motivation and better performance. Authentic leaders truly lead. They are the first ones to go into battle, and they focus on building up their own troops. They take risks, and explain the reason for the risks as well as the possible consequences. The authentic leader leads with character and integrity

However, being authentic does not mean that you should embrace your inner jerk or narcissist. It also does not mean you should be inflexible. Authentic leadership is built on character, not style, and is flexible to fit the situation and capabilities of the team.

Character matters, especially in leadership. We’ve seen many examples where character flaws compromise effective leadership, politicians and otherwise. I was disappointed when the constituents of each of them tried to excuse the behavior as part of their personal life and not representative of their professional leadership. Sorry, that doesn’t fly.

There is no great wall between personal and professional leadership. Both are directly interrelated and aligned, which isexactly why this book focuses on both. A leader without personal character cannot be a great professional leader. Character is not divisible. Thought patterns in the brain are not divisible. You cannot say a person has a high level of character in one area and then forgive a lack of character in another. You cannot say a person can make great decisions in one aspect of life and be a complete idiot in another. It's the same brain. Choices are made consciously, and when a seemingly upstanding leader makes poor decisions, the evidence points directly at a lack of character. (It is important to note that there are cultural considerations with character. The personal follies of leaders may be issues in one culture, but not in others. However, an authentic leader is also aware of context, and leads accordingly, without narcissism and intellectual dishonesty.) Mahatma Gandhi once said “Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

Zen builds character by removing and controlling people’s material and superficial desires. As D.T. Suzuki writes in Essays on Zen Buddhism: “Zen may be considered a discipline aiming at the reconstruction of character. Our ordinary life only touches the fringe of personality, it does not cause a commotion in the deepest parts of the soul. We are made to live on the superficiality of things. We may be clever, bright, and all that, but what we produce lacks depth, sincerity, and does not appeal to the inmost feelings. A deep spiritual experience is bound to effect a change in the moral structure of one’s personality.”

Like all of us, I'm not perfect. I've wronged people and made the occasional poor choice. But I learned my lessons. When I moved into a leadership position, I received the trust of others and very consciously began to hold myself to a higher standard. I deeply felt that trust and responsibility, from when I had just one direct report to when I had a thousand. My decisions and actions, both personal and professional, influenced and affected lives and livelihoods. I soon realized that in my personal life, I had leadership responsibilities of a different form and should hold myself to higher standards at all times.

When a leader’s weaknesses are exposed, it becomes an opportunity for the leader to demonstrate authentic leadership. At that moment, he has the opportunity to show us what we should do when we are faced with our own shortcomings and mistakes. This creates trust. However, when a leader tries to cover up his weaknesses, lie about them or blame others, he demonstrates that he does not have the character to be a leader.

Is your leadership style and method overtly aligned with your values and principles? Do your team members, including your friends and family, experience your values every time they interact with you? Are you unwavering in those principles? When you make a mistake, do you admit them, learn, and change?