For decades people have talked about authenticity as a key trait for successful leaders, but it can be difficult to know if we are acting authentically. There are a lot of surveys and resources out on the internet that you can use to assess your authenticity, but before you go spend money on something like that, let’s consider what makes someone authentic.

A simple definition I like to use for authenticity is “acting in accordance with what you truly believe.” So the first step towards authenticity is figuring out what your core values are. Consciously identifying your core values is the beginning of consciously developing your leadership philosophy and style. Think of core values as a signpost that point you back to the ideals that you truly believe in when you are making decisions and taking actions to lead others. Trying to adopt a leadership philosophy or style that doesn’t align with your core values will lead to a lot of inner conflict and strife as well as making you appear inauthentic by those around you.

Defining your Personal Core Values

Core values come from a lot of different places in our background, the values our family taught us, the values and expectations our profession has, the values that come from our community. Many of these values are in our subconscious and to be effective leaders we need to bring them to the front of our conscious mind to help us make decisions and take actions in alignment with these values.  There is often a lot of discussion about what should be a core value and what shouldn’t but when it comes to your personal core values, what’s really important is that you choose 3 or 4 ideals that really mean the most to you and drive your actions and decision making process. Some examples of common core values are:

  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Service
  • Excellence

Here is an exercise you can do to start to bring your core values to the front of your mind:

  • Set aside half an hour in a quiet place where you won’t be affected by outside influences. Get something you can use to record your thoughts (pen and paper, laptop, phone, etc.). This is a great exercise to record in your Leader’s Journal if you have started one.
  • Think about the behaviors that you or others exhibit that you believe lead to successful outcomes and interactions with others. These can be leadership situations or just personal situations. Examples could be speaking honestly, helping others, supporting others in their endeavors, etc. Write these behaviors down as they come to mind.
  • Once you have your list of successful behaviors, prioritize them with the most important at the top of your list in descending order. You may find some are similar enough to group them together.
  • Now try to associate a single word representing a value for each behavior on your list (If you need 2 or 3 words that’s okay). If speaking honestly and being transparent are at the top of your list, integrity is a single word that you can use to represent the value behind these behaviors. These words become your core values.

If you have more than about 5 core values on your list, you may consider regrouping some of them under other core values that are higher up on your list if that makes sense. If you have more than 5, that’s okay. The goal here is to bring the ideals you truly believe in to your conscious mind. The next challenge is how to communicate your core values to others

Articulating Your Core Values

Now that you have identified your core values and are acting in alignment with them, there will be times that you will want to communicate your core values to your team and others you interact with. If you’re taking over as the team lead, it’s always a good idea to outline your leadership philosophy (including your core values) to the rest of your team. You may be promoted to take over your current team and your colleagues may have a really good understanding of your values and how you employ them. This is still a good chance to start getting the rest of the team focused on what you believe is important.

The same is true if you’re forming a brand new team. An advantage is that if you get to select who is on your team you can pulse them for their own personal core values and see if they are a good fit for the direction you want to take the team in.

Even if you’re not formally in charge of a team or don’t supervise other people there are a couple of advantages to communicating your core values to those around you. First, it lets people know where you’re coming from and what you base your actions and decisions on and will give them a framework of how to work with you better. Second, being open about what your core values are provides some accountability for you to act according to those values and when your words and actions match each other and what you believe in you’ll be acting with authenticity.

Reconciling Differences between Personal and Organizational Core Values

There will almost certainly be times when your personal core values don’t match 100% with those of the people around you or with the core values of your organization. It’s very rare for this kind of disconnect to result in a complete breakdown. This is just one of the many conflicts that can occur between people in an organization and it’s important to take time to work through the differences and discuss solutions to the problem that can let everyone act consistently with their core values, even if it may not be the preferred solution for each individual. In extreme cases, if the organizational core values have changed or are significantly incompatible with your personal core values and there is no opportunity to reconcile that despite best efforts, it may be time to move on from that organization.

True authenticity comes from knowing who we are and what we really believe in at our core and acting in alignment with those beliefs. Defining our core values and bringing them to the front of our conscious minds helps us connect more deeply with the others around us and inspire authentic behavior in ourselves and our teams.

Tell us in the comments how well this core values exercise worked for you!

Photo Credit: Chris Downer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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