The concept of authentic leadership, which values honesty, transparency, and self-awareness, has been around since the early 2000s, when Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School, introduced readers to it in Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. George suggests that authentic leaders are more effective because they inspire trust, loyalty, and commitment among their followers.
One of the key principles of authentic leadership is self-awareness. Authentic leaders spend time learning about themselves, identifying their strengths, and acknowledging their shortcomings. They’re reflective and encourage their followers to be the same. This is particularly important in education, where there’s a constant need for innovation and improvement.
Being authentic means being yourself. In True North—Emerging Leader Edition, George and co-author Zach Clayton share that the early 21st century included crisis after crisis that can be traced back to charismatic leaders who were fearful of being themselves. They call on emerging leaders to lead authentically, sharing, “The reality is that no one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else,” and go on to say, “You can learn from others’ experiences, but you cannot be successful trying to be like them.”
School leaders who embrace authentic leadership aren’t afraid to be themselves and to show vulnerability. In education, where there’s often pressure to conform to a certain image or standard, being true to oneself can be a powerful way to model authenticity for staff and students. By valuing individuality and diversity, school leaders can create a culture that celebrates and values the unique contributions of each member of the school community.
In the context of leadership in schools, authentic leadership can be a powerful force for positive change. School principals play a critical role in creating an encouraging learning environment for their students, but they also have a responsibility to develop the teachers and staff who work with them. By adopting authentic leadership principles, school leaders can build strong relationships with their staff, create a culture of trust and collaboration, and ultimately improve educational outcomes for their students.
The user manual as a tool for authentic leaders
A user manual can be an incredibly useful tool for authentic leaders. A leader might utilize a user manual with their team when they want to establish clear communication and expectations. It can provide a comprehensive guide to a leader’s working style, communication preferences, strengths, weaknesses, values, and expectations. By sharing this information with their team, leaders promote understanding, collaboration, and trust.
From a team member’s point of view, a user manual can help them work more effectively with their leader, anticipate their needs, and avoid misunderstandings. A leader might use such a manual when they join a new team, when they want to establish a new team, or when they want to improve communication and collaboration within an existing team.
As someone who strives to be an authentic leader, I recently tried this out as I transitioned into a principalship at a new school. I was entering during a time of change and wanted to lay the groundwork for a culture of innovation that included mistake-making. This is the model for a leadership user manual with which I most closely aligned mine. Some sites I’ve come across with similar ideas include My User Manual, Creating Your Personal Leadership User Manual, and The Muse.
I opened our first faculty meeting together sharing my user manual, which highlighted my personality traits and included sharing results from this personality test, a ColorCode Personality Test, a Big Five Personality Test, and the Love Language quiz. I distilled these results into a list of my strengths and weaknesses and concluded with a summary of my working style. I chose these tests for the simple reason that I knew there were free online versions.
Talking about oneself can be difficult, particularly when revealing less-than-desirable aspects of one’s personality. However, I demonstrated vulnerability by standing before a group of almost 50 new faculty members and acknowledged that I might come across as insensitive at times, have a tendency to avoid commitments, follow rules closely, and struggle with emotions. I also highlighted my strengths, including my ability to troubleshoot, take proactive and practical approaches, and maintain a consistently optimistic attitude.
Right from the beginning, my new colleagues learned that I thrive on collaboration, am motivated by taking action, dislike wasting time, and prioritize delegation and team building.
After sharing my own user manual with my colleagues, I encouraged them to create and share their own manuals with me. Although some were hesitant at first, nearly all of them found it to be a valuable exercise in self-discovery and communication, with the shared goal of improving our collaborative productivity. I believe this activity helped us accelerate our progress during our first year together, as we had a clear understanding of how to interact with one another.
Now, nearly two years into my leadership role, I frequently refer back to my user manual to introduce myself to new colleagues, suggest that conflicting team members reference each other’s manuals to resolve their differences, and consult the team’s manuals when I need reminders on how to show appreciation.