Leading Authentically: A Coaching Framework
By Sunitha Narayanan
Leadership is under siege in the time of COVID-19. Leaders’ communications, decisions about business direction, talent management, and results are being put to the test by the enormity of this crisis. How does a leader practice authentic leadership in a landscape that is turbulent and in which much is unknown? Leaders we work with are questioning not only how to be authentic leaders but what authentic leadership even is.
To help calm this angst and provide practical solutions, the following framework helps clients successfully reconnect with and practice behaviors that sustain a definition of leading authentically. This framework includes noticing strengths, being curious, practicing kindness, and staying connected, especially in a landscape that feels restless, uncertain, and overwhelming.
A key starting point is to help clients recognize the resiliency of their signature strengths while acknowledging that they will grow into “yet-to-emerge” talent, no matter how complicated the business situation. In fact, complicated situations are often an excellent opportunity to stretch and grow in “yet-to-emerge” ways.
Even experienced leaders sometimes do not use the full range of their talents, which can result in overuse of only a few skills in their toolkit. They might lack awareness of all their talents or even dismiss untapped skills. Help clients reconnect to inner resiliency by reflecting on these questions:
- Where am I feeling the most vulnerable?
- How do my three top gifts to the world help me navigate the uncertainty of today?
- Which new-ish behaviors are helping me promote holding hope?
- What will help me identify unused strengths?
Clients tell me that this reflection helps them harness anxiety proactively and strengthen the alignment between intention and behavior. When this alignment occurs, the chances of living wholeheartedly and leading authentically follow. In restless and uncertain times, paying attention to how vulnerability is showing up and how overusing certain strengths can cause difficulty helps minimize opportunities for derailing the success we wish to create.
For example, a client noticed how she shut down a brainstorming meeting on post-COVID scenarios by using her signature strength, analyzing pitfalls. In her words, “I felt the energy go out of the room.” High awareness around her blind spot allowed her to pay attention to misalignment between her intention (encourage ideas) and behavior (find pitfalls).
We are our stories. Neurologist Robert Burton (2008) explains that our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns, and as a result, we may take incomplete and inaccurate stories and run with them. It is in this process that our amygdala takes over. The part of our brain responsible for survival instincts, the amygdala promotes flight, fight, or freeze responses in the face of fear and other anxiety-producing situations. With the current pandemic and economic insecurity, the amygdala of many people is likely to be fired up exponentially.
Instead of letting the amygdala jump to conclusions, clients can complete the following prompts to approach situations from a place of inquiry and curiosity:
- I’m supposed to….
- If only….
- A story that could use an expiration date or a different ending is….
- What if?
To cultivate meaning in our lives, to do the work we care deeply about, and to make a spectacular business impact, we are helped by what Brené Brown (2010) calls “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are.” A client shared, “When I believe my answers to prompt #1, I feel overwhelmed and can’t find my way through.” Being curious about behaviors that are helping us stay open can build the practice of divergent thinking that is essential in figuring out working solutions in situations that appear unsolvable.
In the Sanskrit language, Maitri means unconditional friendship to oneself and to others. Unless we practice this with ourselves, we are unlikely to build empathic connection with others. Brown (2010) suggests, “When we are unwilling to accept help, we are likely to have a bias against people that do ask for help.” Imagine the consequences in leadership if we were to have this mindset. To distinguish between self-compassion and self-indulgence, encourage clients to work with these prompts:
- What does help look like today?
- What kind of boundaries might help to establish accountability?
- When I am kind to myself, I notice….
- When I am kind to others, I notice…
Self-kindness isn’t an excuse for staying in a flip behavior—a behavior in which emotions get the upper hand. Self-kindness is working with the knowledge that, while we are all hardwired certain ways and have strong preferences, behavior is a choice. This kindness translates into mindfulness, which in turn helps model authenticity. A client reported, “When I give myself permission, when I set boundaries, when I say no, I feel I breathe easier…my team gets more oxygen.” Recognizing that the practice of kindness is within reach can help minimize harsh critical self-talk, work through temporary failure, and build an authentic leadership legacy.
Stellar and sustainable innovation happens with and through people. Within our diversity and divisiveness lies our humanity—our connection. In these challenging times, we have an opportunity to strengthen empathic connection. Simply put, the hurt is being felt by everyone. With our stories connected in this unique and difficult manner, we have the opportunity to build from a place of abundance. To remind clients of this remarkable opportunity, have them consider:
- Which behaviors help deepen trust building for me?
- How might I expand relationships beyond the scope of my business?
- How might I build and participate in conversations that promote the widest possible perspective?
- How might I use creativity tools to explore solutions that haven’t been explored yet?
Today’s health crisis demands we pay attention to connecting our stories for the greatest good for all. The future will emerge from within and through our capacity to use our collective imagination. Our network in the COVID-19 world, and the future that will follow, is a resource that will help us speak our truth, hear and honor an opposing truth, disagree vigorously, and, find a way forward.
Authentic Leadership—The Way Forward
Groundlessness was our reality before this crisis and will be our reality after the crisis. Career counseling or coaching, leadership, and life in general are practiced on a shifting landscape, even on days when we believe we have control. One of the best ways through, regardless of the circumstances, is practicing behaviors that support authenticity. This is how we bring out the good in us and our clients.
Tell me, in the comments section below, how you believe that living and working from a place of authenticity is our way forward in a post COVID-19 world. I look forward to a dialogue of peers on this framework.
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. Minnesota: Hazelden.
Burton, R. A. (2008). On Being Certain: Believing you are right even when you are not. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Sunitha Narayanan is a Certified Executive and Leadership Coach. She helps clients build an authentic life by helping them notice how they get in their own way, how they get in other people’s way, and how they can honor and ask for what they need to do the work that matters deeply to them. Sunitha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4