On Authentic Leadership – Three Foundational Elements for Knowing Yourself

Authentic leadership is a grand, worthy, and potentially overwhelming goal for any leader to attain. Based on more than 16 years as a leadership coach and consultant, I’m convinced that authentic leaders are the best leaders in any industry sector. For growing leaders, the goal of being an authentic leader is both energizing and inspiring. Yet all too often our human nature and the battle against our doubts and fears make it seem an almost impossible goal to attain.

Over the next set of articles, let’s explore the foundational elements of leadership authenticity. The first and most important element is to know yourself, and this idea encompasses three major points.

Clarify Your Priorities

You can pause right now and assess whether you’re living in alignment with your passion, purpose, and personality. At the time of my capture after my plane was shot down in Vietnam, I was just a typical single 24-year-old exuberant pilot who had largely ignored such weighty issues. Partly because of my solid spiritual upbringing, however, I believed deeply that my life was guided toward a divine purpose. I also was passionate about my work. Since the age of five, I had felt destined to fly and to be some type of warrior. My choice of a military career as a fighter pilot was also well aligned with several of my innate personality strengths: bold, take charge, adventurous, and challenge-driven.

After my capture, I definitely had doubts and fears about what the next hours and days might bring, but there were no second thoughts. I had known the risks, I had made my choices, and I was committed to my cause.

In short, I was authentically living “on purpose.” That clarity helped me to stand firm to my values of duty, honor, and country in the days, months, and years ahead.

Connect with Your Purpose and Passion

A sense of purpose fueled by passion is essential for true success. It’s fine to set your sights on any number of worthwhile goals, such as attaining a certain position of influence or making enough money for a comfortable retirement. But all of these achievements will be hollow if they don’t align with an overall purpose that holds up under life-and-death scrutiny.

Clarity of purpose sharpens focus, lifts confidence, and promotes fulfillment. Unfortunately, many people are not living on purpose.

Either they don’t know how to uncover their purpose, or they lack the motivation to search for it. No wonder they lack energy and zest!

Hugh Massie, one of my strategic business partners, didn’t stop searching until he discovered his purpose. Hugh was working for a world-renowned consulting company as a successful CPA in Singapore and Thailand when he felt drawn to educate people on finances. He moved back home to Sydney, Australia and started his own financial services business. It was successful, but within a few years he realized that he had a more specific calling: to teach people how their natural personality responses, such as fear and risk-taking, influence their financial decisions.

That quest led Hugh to the United States, where he became a partner in the work my previous company was doing in the field of human behavior. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Atlanta and launched DNA Behavior International, which is now recognized as a pioneer in the field of human behavior and more specifically behavioral finance. Although Hugh is intelligent and diligent, his success in great part is due to his relentless focus on gaining clarity about his purpose.

Capitalize on Your Personality Strengths

When I first began conducting leadership training in corporations, a young man came to me at the break and asked somewhat sheepishly, “What are the best personality traits for leadership?” Intuitively, I suspected what he really wanted to know was, “Do I have the right traits to be a leader?” That question comes up in some fashion almost everywhere I go, regardless of the age of the group or the size of the organization. Recently it emerged in a training session with executives and senior leaders of a Fortune 500 company.

To illustrate different styles of leadership, I had asked this large audience to physically group themselves in the four corners of the room according to their strongest personality trait. When one participant tried to join the “highly dominant” group, he was good naturedly rejected by the other members. Somewhat disappointed, this man then joined a different group that better matched his key trait. In our debriefing after the exercise, he commented, “It’s true that I don’t fit with that ‘dominant’ group, but I’ve always wanted to be like them.”

“Your honesty and vulnerability are admirable,” I told him, “and it’s not wrong for you to adapt your behaviors from time to time to be more effective in specific situations. But it is a mistake to deny your natural strengths and try to reinvent yourself to be like others. Great leaders come in a wide variety of styles and traits. The best traits for you are your innate traits, the ones you already have. You will be the best leader when you are authentic. So, be yourself. The more you try to imitate others and ‘pose’ as someone you are not, the more difficulties you will have.”

After that experience, I’m confident he became a more authentic and effective leader.

Critical moments can be catalysts for constructive change, but I urge you not to wait for a life-and-death situation or another type of crisis before you begin to think about who you are and where you’re going. Take the time now to ensure that your personal and career choices are aligned with your purpose, passion, and personality. Living authentically enables you to wholeheartedly pursue your goals. Please share your comments in this forum.


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog | Book | Facebook | Twitter

His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

Image Sources: jivesystems.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Ivory Dorsey on October 20, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Lee, This article is engaging and revealing. In addition to the flag posts of leadership you inserted in each segment of the article; It is my belief that you were handed a powerful gift in early childhood; as a result, even when captured, you recognized it as a part of the training. You said: “…I believed deeply that my life was guided toward a divine purpose. I also was passionate about my work. Since the age of five, I had felt destined to fly and to be some type of warrior. My choice of a military career as a fighter pilot was also well aligned with several of my innate personality strengths: bold, take charge, adventurous, and challenge-driven. After my capture, I definitely had doubts and fears about what the next hours and days might bring, but there were no second thoughts…”TOUCHE’~~The clarity you received from early on was re-enforced and left no room for doubt! Keep teaching! Well done.

    • Lee Ellis on October 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      Ivory – thanks for the comments and validation. As you mention, the earlier that we have that self-awareness of our personal strengths and struggles, the better that we’re equipped to pursue and live the best plan for our lives. Thanks again!

  2. nachumkatz on October 21, 2014 at 1:21 am

    Loved it, thank you!

    Nachum Katz

    • Lee Ellis on October 21, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      My pleasure, Nachum – glad it was helpful and/or inspirational for you.

  3. Tom Schulte on October 21, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Excellent article, Lee!!! Thank you for sharing.

    • Lee Ellis on October 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      Tom – thank YOU for sharing through the L2L forum. Grateful for the work that you’re doing in growing leaders.

  4. TheTWLeader on October 22, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. These moments are revealing to your true nature. I had a moment with cancer that changed my outlook. This experience helped me identify what is important in life.

    • Ivory Dorsey on October 23, 2014 at 10:58 am

      TWLeader, your response to this article puts it all in perspective. Essentially, to me, you said, adversity reveals the leader. It is what I saw in Lee’s story as well. I am certain your bout with cancer was an adversary to your immune system that unveiled a new level of leadership in you. Thanks for sharing TWLeader.

      • Lee Ellis on October 27, 2014 at 12:30 pm

        Definitely echo Ivory’s comments. Grateful that challenging circumstances are not experienced in vain–they can be used for growth and purpose in future endeavors.

    • Lee Ellis on October 27, 2014 at 12:29 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. Significant life events definitely produce new perspective and outlook. I’m glad that we all have the opportunity to grow and mature in realistic, personal self-awareness!

  5. Terrence J. White on October 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I love that we have a chance to start or end our day on the note that we choose. I have come to learn that the day is full of a balance of our thoughts. The things we thing become the actions we take. I have shared this with several of those who enjoy my books: today is an opportunity for you to take a small step in to a big directions. so too is every morning an opportunity to take a step in to an emotional place because there will always be negative and trials, its how we view those that determine our joy. http://www.terrencejwhite.com

    • Lee Ellis on October 27, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      Terrence – I agree that emotions play a powerful compass and motivator for our actions. That’s another important element of self-awareness that we can’t ignore because it ultimately reveals our character and motives. Thanks for raising awareness on this important topic.