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.

Notice Strengths

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:

  1. Where am I feeling the most vulnerable?
  2. How do my three top gifts to the world help me navigate the uncertainty of today?
  3. Which new-ish behaviors are helping me promote holding hope?
  4. 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).

Be Curious

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:

  1. I’m supposed to….
  2. If only….
  3. A story that could use an expiration date or a different ending is….
  4. 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.

Be Kind

Photo By Josh Appel On UnsplashIn 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:

  1. What does help look like today?
  2. What kind of boundaries might help to establish accountability?
  3. When I am kind to myself, I notice….
  4. 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.

Be Connected

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 narayanansunitha4@gmail.com or on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4

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Lili Boyanova   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 03:36 AM

This is an extremely important and timeless piece to revert to in times of fear and doubt. When these new behaviours have to replace old patters, a lot of unlearning and removal of conditioning that is unconsciously moving us. I feel that a coaching process is a must for the modern day leader to sense and adapt at a pace suitable for their circumstances. It is a great tool to use when making choices. Being a leader is a daily choice, and the alternative of keeping mediocre and isolated is no longer an option. Thank you for this article!

Sunitha Narayanan    on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 07:22 AM

Lili- thank you for adding your perspective. What resonated with me deeply is,” Being a leader is a daily choice.” Yes, it is showing up daily with moments of courage to engage with what is unfolding in the moment. With the willingness to embrace the inherent paradox of life. Thanks for reading, engaging and adding to this conversation.

Liz Seager   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 09:54 AM

Sunitha, thank you for such an insightful article. Not only will I utilize your questions in career advising sessions, but in being a supervisor/leader as well. COVID-19 fractured my advising team in addition to an entire Career Services team. Using these questions will help us reflect on how to come back together. Every leader in a coaching/advising environment needs to be asking the "Be Connected" questions as we find our new normal. Thank you, excellent article!

sunitha narayanan   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 11:05 AM

Liza- Thank you for engaging and adding your thoughts. Yes, teams are fractured in reality and emotionally. And, picking up on naunced anxiety and restlessness is at a leader's door! Glad that there are leaders like you who show up, no matter what to model courage and hope. Thank you.

sunitha narayanan   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 11:06 AM

I meant Liz not Liza-couldn't figure out how to edit. I apologize.

Judi Heile   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 11:23 AM

Though I’m enjoying my retirement, I still find myself using these skills in my everyday life with family, friends and especially grandchildren as they enter their teenage years and begin grappling with the many challenges confronting us today. Recognizing their strengths and learning how to make the most of them is critical to finding their own “place of authenticity”. Thank you, Sunitha, for reminders of my training so many years ago, and also for adding your own outstanding and helpful interpretations to make them useful in everyday life!

sunitha narayanan   on Tuesday 06/02/2020 at 12:51 PM

Judi- thank you and yes, these are life skills. As my first boss in Cincinnati, you showed me how generosity, compassion and belief in people can exponentially expand a conversation, deepen trust and generate purposeful outcomes. I am grateful for your mentoring me and for our friendship today.

Krishna Prakash    on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 08:14 AM

One of the practical article worth enough to be a small booklet on leadership. Superb. Insights and actionables filled, easy to read, digest and implement.

Jill McCarthy   on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 09:08 AM

Sunitha - Thank you for your insights into authentic leadership and for providing thought provoking questions to ask ourselves and others. Sometimes the first step in doing is just figuring out how to do it, so the questions help get us started. And then the real work is diving into the answers, where we uncover our strengths in a new perspective or we use creativity and curiosity to come up with a new way to look at a current situation. And practice. practice. practice.

Linda Tefend   on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 12:32 PM

Insightful, organized and practical, Sunitha. Thank you. As the world around us gets more complicated and combustible, you are reminding us to adhere to the classic, tried-and-true tents of wise and good living. And isn't that true leadership?

sunitha narayanan   on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 01:52 PM

Linda-thanks for adding your thoughts. What you said in a recent conversation has stayed with me, "Things have changed yet things have remained the same." I am perhaps not capturing your words exactly yet it brings up the need to pause and stay as close as possible to nurturing values and practices as we continue to figure out what next. Thank you for the generous way you share your gifts and for your friendship.

sunitha narayanan   on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 01:53 PM

Jill- you said it well-practice, practice and more practice because practice is elusive and slippery. I am glad our paths intersect.

sunitha narayanan   on Thursday 06/04/2020 at 01:55 PM

Krishna Prakash - I am glad you found value in these reflections. Thank you for the LinkedIn invite and I look forward to learning about your work.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.