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How to Become an Authentic Leader in the Digital Era

Maintaining integrity depends on knowing, doing and being -- all in ways that enable us to evolve into our true self.
How to Become an Authentic Leader in the Digital Era
Image credit: Eva-Katalin | Getty Images
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Digitalization is a catalyst for an evolved style of leadership to flourish. Researchers at Oxford Economics note that the new class of emerging leaders embraces a digital mindset, is highly proficient at using technology to achieve competitive advantage and reports stronger business outcomes as a result.

In fact, the recent Leaders 2020 study of more than 4,000 executives in 21 countries found that digital leaders drive stronger performance and employee engagement through strategy, speed and inclusiveness.

Fully embracing a digital leadership style brings tremendous opportunity. But if not done thoughtfully, it can push a leader too far afield of his or her authentic, true self. Authenticity has been described as the “gold standard for leadership” -- the proverbial holy grail. The challenge for leaders is twofold: (1) preserve authenticity, in tune with their true self, by leveraging the best of what digital change has to offer and (2) simultaneously evolve their true self in tune with digital change itself.

Related: 10 Unmistakable Habits of Utterly Authentic People

In The Authenticity Paradox, Herminia Ibarra points out that without the evolution of this true self, people tend to form an overly inflexible definition of what it means to be authentic. This ultimately can become a hindrance to effective, modern leadership.

One way for us to solve this dilemma is to approach our personal evolution using the classical Knowing-Doing-Being framework. This framework takes into account all the aspects that require good management and then applies these aspects in practice.

Knowing.

The process of becoming an authentic digital leader starts with knowledge. The most thought-provoking leaders understand the skills, competencies and technical information needed to manage effectively in the modern workplace.

For many leaders, digital can be a “frenemy." It provides the platform to dramatically increase influence, prestige and notoriety on a global, real-time scale. But there's a lurking temptation: Leaders must avoid using digital as a medium for vanity metrics that serve only to inflate egos.

The Knowing phase teaches us how to be flexible in a rapidly changing environment and functions as a moral compass that can lead a company to success. 

Related: 10 Successful Entrepreneurs Reveal the Books That Changed Their Lives

Doing.

Embracing the right information to become an authentic digital leader is easy enough. The real challenge begins when people start putting that knowledge into practice. Digital opens up possibilities by dissolving traditional boundaries within or across organizations. It encourages critical thinking and experimentation without fear of failure. In this way, it spurs innovation.

Becoming part of the risk-taking entrepreneurial culture is a good exercise. I know it helped me. Getting into the trenches means operating in an environment where failure is not only a potential outcome but a virtual given at one phase or another.

It's often the most challenging moments that push us to better understand ourselves and transform us into more authentic leaders. The Doing stage involves plunging into new projects and activities, interacting with a diverse set of individuals and experimenting with new ways of getting things done.

Related: Conscious Innovation in the Age of Millennials

Being.

The final -- and by far most difficult -- phase of becoming an authentic leader is the Being stage. Great leaders are consistently self-aware because they understand the impact they have on others. This helps them act always on their core values and, in turn, maintain integrity.

Most of us have personal narratives about defining moments. In our own hero stories, we surmount the obstacles along the way and learn invaluable lessons that shape our decision-making. Each of us owns our story and point of view in the traditional way of telling, even if we can't predict precisely how others might hear it.

Digital, though, means we're increasingly out of control. There's no way to manage every component of how others react, respond or critique "our" story. That's why it's so critical to accept (and even embrace) the pros and cons that accompany this letting go.

Related: 8 Mindsets That Will Set You on the Path to Success

Digital leaders often communicate and engage with multiple audiences. Listeners each have an individual identity -- and simultaneously combine to create a global scale. Locking ourselves into a singular perspective prevents us from empathizing with the broad spectrum of engagement required in the digital age. We can layer different points of view and edit them as we continue to learn and grow in our leadership roles. We should aim to add a unique and fresh perspective.

Leading.

It's safe to say very few people arrive at the Being stage. Here are a few observations to help get us there: 

  • Digital isn’t binary. Allowing ourselves to consider a range of perspectives helps us understand nuances that guide how we'll lead. We must recognize that our true self always is in development and depends on the types of roles we play in life. It's worth being amenable to the future, still-unformed self.
  • Consistent credibility wins. Digital's pace puts simultaneous demands on both consistency and credibility. The best digital leaders are intentional and purposeful about how they manage multiple platforms, topics and audiences. 
  • Our power lies in choice. With digital, “always-on” leadership is fast becoming the norm. This creates new types of complexity. Maintaining a harmonious, integrated work-life balance is a challenge for many, and burn-out often is a byproduct. It's good to remember that how, when, and whether to engage still remains a matter of personal choice.

The manner in which we carry ourselves, the tools we use to communicate, the ways we interact -- all of these small changes can make a world of difference in how effectively we can lead. In authentic leadership, learning something new is just as valuable as teaching a lesson. Accepting this fact is essential for developing our true self in this increasingly digital world.