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Leading With Authenticity: Five Leadership Lessons From Jesus

What’s the real thing? Coca-Cola used this slogan to describe itself in the early seventies. However, people have been describing Jesus as the real thing for two thousand years.

One of the most influential leadership characteristics Jesus displayed to others was authenticity. People may have disagreed with his message or methods, but no one could criticize Jesus for misrepresenting himself. As a result of Jesus’ leadership, Christianity is the world’s largest religion today. If we intentionally follow the model he set for us by leading with authenticity, we will increase the influence and proficiency of our leadership.

Recently I conducted research on the leadership characteristics of influential leaders. The results revealed that male followers were most influenced by leaders who demonstrated authenticity. It was the fifth most influential trait for women followers.

Needless to say, authenticity is a critical component of effective leadership. But how do we obtain it? More importantly, how is authenticity demonstrated in our everyday interactions with others? To learn what authenticity is and how it works, let’s follow the example of the world’s greatest leader—Jesus Christ.

1. Be Yourself
Jesus displayed authenticity by being himself in every situation. Even after he had been arrested, mocked, severely beaten, and nailed to the cross, Jesus remained resolutely true to his nature. When one of the criminals on the cross asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Jack Welch relates a story that further illustrates the importance of being ourselves. “When I was at GE, we would occasionally encounter a very successful executive who just could not be promoted to the next level…The person demonstrated the right values and made the numbers, but usually his people did not connect with him…Finally, we figured out that these people always had a certain phoniness about them. They pretended to be something they were not—more in control, more upbeat, more savvy than they really were. They didn’t sweat. They didn’t cry. They squirmed in their own skin, playing a role of their own inventing.”

When we act like someone we are not, others will quickly sense an imposter! Instead of wearing a mask that hides our true identity, we need to lead by being ourselves.

2. Lead From the Inside Out
Not only was Jesus authentic, but he also exposed others for being disingenuous. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the crowds not to listen to the Pharisees, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt 23:3). He went on to vividly describe how the Pharisees looked clean and shiny on the outside, while their insides were ugly and decayed from leading deceitful and hypocritical lives.

Leadership goes beyond simply adopting visible behaviors. It is developed by first having a genuine inner spirit. If we are authentic on the inside, our sincerity will naturally flow outward and influence our behaviors and interactions with others. In my research with people who were strongly influenced by leaders, a common theme was that there were no discrepancies between what their leaders said and how their leaders acted. Followers can sense a phony in a heartbeat. If we lead from the inside out we will incite others to follow our example, and our leadership will resonate with authenticity.

3. Be Transparent
Jesus exhibited authenticity by being transparent with others. He was not afraid to let people see him weep or express anger. Oftentimes, leaders are reluctant to expose their weaknesses for fear that they will be perceived as being impotent or incompetent. However, my research revealed that leaders who are transparent are viewed as being credible and trustworthy. This is explained more fully in my book.

Tom Wagner said, “Leaders establish trust with candor, transparency and credit.” Transparency promotes trust among our followers.

One way to demonstrate transparency to others is by asking for feedback on our performance. We can do this with our direct reports, our colleagues, and even with our family. A crucial thing to remember is that asking for feedback is not just lip service—we must sincerely listen to what others are saying to us.

4. Express Humility
The apostle Paul pleaded with the Philippian Christians to imitate the humility of Jesus. He said, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).

Being given a position of authority does not make us superior to our followers. If anything, leaders have a greater responsibility to lead lives that express humility. When we invariably fail, the way we respond will affect the degree of influence we have on our followers. If we wish to communicate trust to our followers, we must swallow our pride, admit our mistakes and then strengthen our weaknesses.

5. Be Egalitarian
Jesus was authentic because he viewed every person as valuable and significant. He had as much respect for the Samaritan woman at the well as for the Jewish leader Nicodemus.

Albert Einstein said, “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” As leaders, this should be our motto. We may not be able to give the same amount of time to each follower, but we can help all of them feel significant by speaking to them with dignity and respect.

When we pattern our leadership after Jesus by exhibiting authenticity in every situation, we will naturally influence others and win their respect.

What areas do you need to work on to advance your authenticity as a leader?

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