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Let's Get Real: 5 Traits of Authentic People

03/25/2015 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015
Ilya Bushuev via Getty Images

"To live with integrity a person must first know oneself and then act in a consistently honest and open way," Fr. Richard E. Simpson, rector, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, recently told me, adding: "Some might say they have a strong moral compass or guiding ethical principles, but I think that it is about being at peace with oneself, allowing a freedom to be forthright about the actions."

He was responding to my question about his definition of integrity. I was particularly interested in hearing this, because integrity is one of the character traits of the real, or authentic, person.

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To be sure, we all covet the label of being real. I remember how flattered I felt the first time someone told me I was real. That was 25 years ago, and I'm still talking about it, so you do the math. While no one likes a fake, too many take a simplistic view, thinking it's blurting the first thing that comes to mind. It's not attacking, blaming or judging, and it most certainly isn't any type of self-denigration, such as lack of confidence or self-respect.

Being real or authentic is also a much sought-after managerial trait but, used unwisely, it can hurt your growth. In fact, the Harvard Business Review cites an example of a manager who derailed her career because she confused being authentic for lack of confidence. HBR says:

Consider Cynthia, a general manager in a health care organization. Her promotion into that role increased her direct reports 10-fold and expanded the range of businesses she oversaw, and she felt a little shaky about making such a big leap. A strong believer in transparent, collaborative leadership, she bared her soul to her new employees: 'I want to do this job,' she said, 'but it's scary, and I need your help.' Her candor backfired; she lost credibility with people who wanted and needed a confident leader to take charge.

Here are four other traits of real or authentic person:

Mindfulness:
What's really bothering you? Is it really because your co-worker is always a little late or that your partner left the cap off the toothpaste or forgot to take out the garbage? Could it be that it's a symptom of something else that should be addressed? Do you have any responsibility in that behavior?

When we're mindful, we're paying attention to our feelings and thoughts. We connect with ourselves, resulting in the formation of a strong foundation for both personal and professional relationships.

The Greater Good Science Center of UC Berkeley also says that there is no judgment in our thoughts and no right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment.

Compassion:
We all know that person, the one with the constant smile on his or her face. This person never shows any emotion and never gets angry or upset; and, boy, you have no idea what's in his or her mind. You constantly walk on those eggshells, wondering when that shoe will finally drop.

While you don't want to be hurtful, harsh or known for those hot-headed, knee-jerk temper tantrums, you certainly don't want to be emotionally dishonest either. When you repress your genuine feelings it's not only an exhausting waste of energy, but it also affects morale and motivation in any environment; after all, how can one correct something if they don't know it needs improving?

Self-respect:
This really goes hand-in-hand with confidence, because real, authentic people know themselves so well they don't constantly play those negative "tapes" that can cause second-guessing and doubt. That's not to say they never have those thoughts, but they've created a balance in their lives so they know how to force the negative out and keep moving. They're quietly and calmly confident and self-assured. They aren't hindered by the paralysis of "what will people say" or "I'm not good enough" or perfectionitis.

A few years ago I was on a flight to New York. All the NY airports had delayed arrival times because of a wind situation. Without an ounce of arrogance, the pilot taxied out to the runway anyway and then announced in a confident, self-assured and soothing tone that he was, indeed, going to get us back safely and on time." His demeanor clearly said, "No one's better than me, and I'm taking charge."

Now that, I thought, is someone who really knows what he's doing!

Courage:
Fear can really hold us back, because it is exactly when we stretch ourselves past our limits--even to the point of discomfort--that we grow.

Real, authentic people have the courage of their convictions and live their lives based on that information. They have a strong inner strength which builds self-confidence and the ability to face challenges and take fast action, when needed. If they feel the fear they do it anyway, and they aren't afraid to have those tough discussions--which can even result in helping someone else move forward (i.e., compassion).

When I first started out, I was consulting with a prospective client. While she kept saying how much she wanted to work with me, she spent the entire session only talking about her past negative experience with someone else in my industry. I spent an enormous amount of time with her, trying to add some value and positivity to the conversation, but she just kept circling back to that dark place, only giving me vague non-answers about her expectations. After some time, I assured her that my door would always be open when she was ready, but explained that I did not think she was ready at that time. "I don't want to see you focusing so much on that experience that it hinders your advancement," I said. For me, my first priority is to see a client's total transformation, and nothing less than a successful coaching relationship is acceptable to me. There was no other choice but to have this open and honest conversation.

Circling back to integrity, consider this personal anecdote: One of my friends, a college professor, told me one of her students reacted with sorrow not because of the act of cheating, but ONLY because he got caught. "I never thought you'd find out!!" he wailed. He just didn't get the whole "do the right thing, even if no one is looking" thing. Then, as she was cleaning out her office in preparation for summer vacation, Natalia came across some chocolate-covered pretzels, her favorite treat -- she was also ravenous because she had been on a strict juice fast for several days. "Oh, come on, I'm so hungry and if I have some, no one will know, " she said, stopping herself when she realized she was ready to do the very same thing she reproached her student for.