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Leadership Authenticity Starts With Knowing Yourself

Leadership Authenticity Starts With Knowing Yourself

by Austin Suellentrop

Story Highlights

  • Rather than fixating on role models, leaders should focus on being authentic
  • Authentic leaders build their own strengths and the strengths of followers
  • Strengths-based feedback and questions create greater leadership authenticity

Want to learn from the world's most influential leaders how they succeed with their strengths? Check out our latest series, Leading With Strengths. 

Leaders hold the power to realize -- or vaporize -- incredible organizational performance. Their capacity for leadership determines the future of those they lead.

Yet many leaders are unsure what it takes to be a great, authentic, inspiring leader -- someone who motivates employees to bring their A-game to work every day. Someone who consistently sparks growth and sustains their company through market disruptions.

As an emerging leader, I was obsessed with improving my leadership skills and becoming an authentic leader. I routinely pondered the traits and qualities that define great leadership -- what the best do differently and how I might replicate their success.

Discovering Your Authentic Leadership Style

Along the way, I discovered a single principle that guides every action, decision and motivation I have as a leader. A truth that can empower any leader to become more authentic, inspiring and effective.

Authentic leaders are always investing in strengths -- their own strengths as well as those of their followers.

It seems like a simple concept -- but it's counter to how many leaders think they should lead. Often, leaders are taught to address weak spots, correct team difficulties and work to resolve inefficiencies.

The best leaders do just the opposite: They relentlessly cultivate strengths.

Authentic leaders are always investing in strengths -- their own strengths as well as those of their followers.

I learned this principle at a young age from my father, who was a leader in every role he played -- professionally, in his community, and certainly for his family. Every day, from the time I was in the second grade, he asked me, "Austin, what did you do to be a leader today?"

That daily question framed every relationship, decision and goal I pursued.

I won't lie: At first, I tried to "copycat" other leaders -- people who were thriving around me. But I quickly learned that trying to change myself or fit into someone else's leadership mold wasn't effective. Just the opposite -- it frustrated me. When my aim was general -- simply becoming a more well-rounded and capable leader, my growth was marginal at best.

Over time, I learned that the best leaders don't strive to fix their weaknesses or duplicate other leaders' successes. When I zeroed in on my unique strengths -- what I do best -- I realized off-the-charts leadership improvement.

In the same way, you can become a relatable, phenomenal leader right now -- today. All it takes is tapping into what you do best.

Here's a simple example to illustrate the point: Growing up, one of my leadership role models excelled at writing speeches. For a time, I tried to emulate his approach -- I used the same outline, content template and speaking cadence when delivering speeches of my own. But my speeches never resonated with others as I hoped.

Then one day, I realized my greatest way of communicating isn't scripting out speeches, it's speaking from the heart. When I started sharing what I believe in, my core values, and how they connected to the topic at hand, my Belief strength was empowered, and I flourished.

In other words, I learned that when I lean into what I do well, my specific talents -- that's when results appear. I am a better leader when I tap into my strengths. In fact, I've found it's the best way to authentically inspire others.

Over time, I learned that the best leaders don't strive to fix their weaknesses or duplicate other leaders' successes. When I zeroed in on my unique strengths -- what I do best -- I realized off-the-charts leadership improvement.

Decades of Gallup research show that when leaders focus on their strengths -- the unique talent themes that set them apart -- they see improvements in their performance and in that of their employees, including employee engagement, retention, and productivity.

Further, focusing on what you do well boosts your confidence as a leader and helps you make better decisions. It helps you become a better role model who motivates others to be their best selves.

Best of all, when you develop your strengths, you're fueled to help others do the same. As a leader, the science of strengths helps me empower those I lead to define their leadership voice and take ownership of their work. By emphasizing my followers' strengths and leadership abilities, I increase their buy-in and commitment (not to mention their overall happiness and wellbeing).

I'm an authentic leader because I constantly spot potential in others and help them define, claim and develop their strengths. Being a strengths-based leader is about encouraging others to find their unique path to success -- and it's a proven way to increase employee performance.

Authentic leaders don't just discover and develop their followers' strengths -- they use their own strengths to be relatable, genuine leaders who constantly help others learn and grow.

To get there, you should first turn inward. What do you do uniquely well as a leader? What makes you unique and makes others want to follow you?

I cannot tell you how many times I've received feedback from people that a statement, example or analogy I shared in one of my presentations helped them understand a concept in a new way. Almost every time, the part they remember best was something I experienced personally and discussed in a vulnerable way. That's what resonates with them -- my authentic way of speaking makes my words unforgettable. And it's only possible because I understand my true self and what I do uniquely well.

Leadership isn't one-size-fits-all -- and you'll become the best leader you can be if you find out what makes you uniquely powerful.

Discover your strengths.

Stop wondering what your strengths are; learn them. Embrace them. Live them. Until you're at peace with your authentic way of leading, others won't want to authentically follow you. And when you lean into your strengths, your followers are more likely to perceive you as authentic and relatable.

Prioritize leadership development.

Once you discover your leadership strengths, use a strengths-based approach to aim your performance and help the leaders around you become more effective, too. You'll find that your greatest growth and success as a leader is the byproduct of strengths-based coaching, development and goal setting.

Build strengths-based teams.

The best leaders don't stop with discovering and applying their own strengths: They use a strengths-based approach with their teams. For example, how do your team members listen best? How can you optimize task assignments to capitalize on what your constituents do well?

Leaders show respect to followers when they acknowledge their abilities and ask questions about what makes them unique. The goal is to create an experience where others walk away thinking, "Wow, they really understand me -- and they can help me accomplish my goals for the future."


For example, a strength-based performance conversation can help employees find fulfillment in their work and achieve their desired career trajectory. All it takes is asking strengths-based questions -- for example, "What types of projects energize and excite you most? Which types of projects frustrate you most?" Then, listen actively, respond accordingly, and keep asking questions.

Here's an example from my past to illustrate this point. As a leader with high Communication talent, I have never been hesitant to vocalize ideas or speak up in meetings. The best developmental feedback I ever received was from a manager who knew this about me and tailored her developmental feedback in a way that built on my strengths. Rather than telling me, "You need to talk less in this meeting," she offered, "I want you to pick the best story you have that can highlight your message in this meeting."

That is, she didn't point out how my Communication strength could hinder me; she helped me focus and harness that strength to increase its impact. We left that meeting with our COO on board and aligned with our proposal -- and the pride I had in my work was at an all-time high. I was on cloud nine -- probably experiencing benefits even higher than what Gallup research shows:

When people apply their strengths, they are:

  • 6x as likely to be engaged in their jobs
  • 3x as likely to report having an excellent quality of life
  • 6x as likely to strongly agree they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day

As leaders, it's our role to look for opportunities to provide strengths-based feedback for those we lead. Find out why your followers do what they do, what motivates them, and when they're at their best -- then help them develop those strengths.

It's a winning approach that produces stronger team dynamics, better collaboration and greater team effectiveness, according to Gallup data.

Remember, to be a great leader, you don't need to be perfect. You don't need one-size-fits-all leadership seminars or frameworks. All you need is to be yourself as a leader, not someone else.

Ask yourself, what did you do to be a leader, today?

Lead people authentically by investing in who you already are:

CliftonStrengths® and each of the 34 CliftonStrengths theme names are trademarks of Gallup. Copyright © 2000 Gallup, Inc. All rights reserved.


Austin Suellentrop is the CliftonStrengths Portfolio Manager at Gallup.

Bailey Nelson contributed to this article.

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