Authentic leadership: the four pillars of keeping it ‘REAL’

Corinna van den Heuvel explains how developing a strong personal leadership philosophy is key to authenticity as a leader

Corinna van den Heuvel 's avatar
22 Nov 2022
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Catching up with academic colleagues is part of keeping it REAL

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My success as a leader is founded on four basic pillars based on the acronym REAL. Across more than 20 years in leadership roles in higher education, I’ve developed a philosophy that emphasises authenticity because I firmly believe it’s vital as a leader to remain genuine, approachable and to always maintain a sense of self and humility.

R: Respect

It’s crucial to earn respect while always respecting others. With respect comes trust, and when people are led by a trusted colleague who truly understands them by virtue of working beside them, the chance of success is far greater.

Ensure that you understand the goals and achievements of your team and colleagues. Knowing who they are, what they do, what’s working and where the gaps are is key. Offer support or applause where appropriate. Teamwork and productivity are enhanced when everyone understands how their piece fits into the bigger picture. Consultation, transparent decision-making and communication are key factors in ensuring that you maintain the respect of your peers. Practise what you preach and always reflect on your leadership style so that you are aware of the shadow you cast as a leader, mentor, colleague, teacher and friend.

E: Engage

Fostering and nurturing strong collegial relationships is at the core of a successful learning and working environment. Inspire a “one team” culture built around purpose, accountability, engagement, respect, commitment and collaboration.

It’s important to have a strong and visible presence as a leader and to make your decision-making transparent. Leaders are responsible for building and maintaining a strong culture, and this requires investment and nurturing – it doesn’t just happen. Remember that you are both a role model and an advocate for others.

Mentoring others is a key aspect of leadership in academia, where junior colleagues will benefit from your understanding of “how things work”. Offer to peer-review their teaching or research applications and provide opportunities for them to be involved in extension activities such as curriculum design and course- and programme-renewal projects. Take a keen interest in their development and support them to engage with institutional opportunities for professional learning, reward and recognition. Introduce them to like-minded others and key stakeholders to further expand their network.

A: Achieve

Nothing happens when you simply talk about it. A proactive, can-do attitude is a must and is at the core of achievement. Put words into action and get things done.

Learning as much as you can from those you admire is also key to achievement, while learning from and reflecting on your mistakes makes you a stronger and more resilient leader.

Think big, be strategic, innovative and creative but always set realistic and achievable goals. Be organised and be selective with what you say yes to, but always put your hand up to bigger opportunities such as being involved in strategic discussions, task forces or working groups – anything to broaden your scope of knowledge and extend your skill set. When involved in these big-picture roles make sure you lean in and don’t be afraid to use your voice, because you’ve got important things to offer.

Make sure you also bring the right people into the conversation and that your team sees their achievement in the outcomes. A good leader always leads by making others feel that they did it themselves. Empower others to step outside their comfort zones, too, and to lean into discomfort. Collaboration is key to success, and we can create the optimum environment if we collaborate more often, pool our strengths and, most importantly, support one another.

L: Laugh

Even during the most challenging times, it’s important to have fun. Laughter relieves stress, boosts engagement and well-being and enhances collegiality and productivity. Regularly check in on your peers, get to know them, escape the office and go for a walk with them or simply have an impromptu chat in the tea room. Start conversations, ask questions, tell a funny story and organise informal gatherings. Anything to bring people together to unite and socialise and to help them realise they are a vital part of the tribe. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and laughter comes more easily in a collegial and inclusive setting.

Leading others is a privilege and the key to being an effective and respected leader is to lead authentically and with integrity, and to bring others along with you.

Corinna van den Heuvel is interim head of the School of Biomedicine and programme coordinator for the Bachelor of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

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