Authentic Leadership


If there’s one book that has been my go to throughout my entire career…it’s a book called ‘The Leadership Challenge’.

It was originally published in 2007… it became my bible as a Chief Operating Officer when I was in corporate America. It helped me grow and it shaped my perspective about how to be a great leader. And FYI… new version was published in 2017 and it is even better.

In this book, they use ‘The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’ and it is embedded in my leadership style. It taught me that behavior, communication, and building relationships were the direct path to becoming the type of leader that people respect.

So, what are the five practices and how can they help you? I won’t spend a lot of time re-purposing information from the book and I encourage you to purchase the book to learn more on your own. But for purposes of this podcast let me share them with you really quick because the first practice is our topic today.

1.     Model the Way

2.     Inspire A Shared Vision

3.     Challenge the Process

4.     Enable Others to Act

5.     Encourage the Heart

Each of these five practices encompasses your role as a leader but ‘modeling the way’ is where I want to start our discussion today. No one ever became a great leader by not knowing what their value system is…because leadership is not about what you say…it’s about how you behave, and not just how you behave once, but how you behave consistently.

You probably know from your own experiences around leadership that you have to be really vested in a vision and in a belief. We don’t just follow people who we don’t trust or believe in, right? Think about a great leader you respect and think about the way they behave…does their vision and integrity show in their behavior? Are they walking their own talk?

We hear the word authentic leadership frequently now days. And for some people it might be considered just another buzzword. But if you strip the word away and talk about what it means…you see the description of honesty. Being an authentic leader means you’re honest and according to several survey’s I’ve read over the years, honesty is the number one quality that most of us want to see in our leaders, here in the US.

How can you respect a leader who’s not honest? Who doesn’t tell the truth? And let me tell you…sometimes being honest is the hardest job of all when it comes to leading people.

Let me share this story with you…

Many years ago, while working at a call center as the Director of Customer Services. We had a fairly large group of Customer Service Representatives. We were the customer service arm for a credit card servicing company and we lost our contract. Overnight we all went from having great jobs to being unemployed.

There was no way that I could come to work every morning knowing that everyone would be unemployed by the end of the month. So, I took the high road and shared the news during our morning meeting. I asked them to stay through the end of the month with me. I promised them that I wouldn’t leave before they did and I would work with them if they needed time off for interviews. I wrote reference letters and I called employment agencies…I did everything I could do to help them find new jobs. Most of them stayed as long as they could and we finished our contract still maintaining our call metrics as set out in the contract. I felt so much pride in being able to complete my responsibilities.

But as horrible as that day was…the rest of the time we had together was filled with laughs, tears…and lots of respect coming from both sides. I never wanted to mislead them and I kept them as up to date with information as I could and for that they respected me as their leader.

Being honest in times of turmoil is one of the hardest things about being a leader. What I mean by that is…even if I hadn’t told the staff they were losing their jobs I still wouldn’t have been dishonest, but I would have compromised my personal integrity by not being upfront about the situation. And that was something I wasn’t willing to do.

But while we are on the topic of honesty…I would be remiss to tell you that as important as being honest is to a leader’s success it can also be construed as cruel if not delivered properly.

What if I would have gotten up in front of them and told them that we were closing.

Something like this…” Hey guys I have some really sucky news…we lost our contract so therefore we all need to go find new jobs at the end of the month.”

If you were on the receiving side of that announcement – how would you have reacted?

Instead the way I chose to share the news was by being empathetic. And I have to be honest, no pun intended, at that time I couldn’t have even told you want empathy was or what it meant. What I do know is that I am, and have always been a very empathetic person so this characteristic comes easy for me. But it doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

Without empathy, a leader can fail miserably when trying to be honest.

We’ve all worked with the person who is brutally honest, to the point that they don’t care whose feelings they hurt or whose toes they step on…right? They’ve been taught to be honest but neglected to learn how to do it empathetically. In many cases, they don’t do it to be hateful they just haven’t learned how empathy can help their delivery in a way that’s not so painful.

Where I want you to connect honesty and empathy together is simple. No one explains empathy in the workplace better than Daniel Goleman in the Harvard Business Journal Book called “On Emotional Intelligence.”

Goleman states, “…empathy means thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.”

I love this because no leader should ever make decisions in a vacuum. Being an authentic leader means being honest…but it means being honest in a way that takes others thoughts and emotions into consideration not just your own.

There isn’t a better example of someone who is honest but shows no empathy at all…other than Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

Sheldon’s not really a leader, but for the sake of this example…it is easy to see how his honesty gets in the way of people’s feelings. At times, he hurts people with his need to be honest.

Being an authentic leader is about being honest, open and empathetic. When we take the time to understand others emotional makeup, we better understand how to communicate in a way that builds trust and respect.

I started with this topic because it is the one characteristic that many leaders fail to implement. Not that they’re dishonest. Many times, they just don’t take the time to understand their own values before trying to lead a team. If you want people to see you as a leader, walk your talk and play close attention to your behavior.

So as we wrap up today, let me leave you with this…

Remember you set the expectation around behavior in your team. How do you expect your team to be honest with you when they feel you aren’t honest with them? Leadership is a relationship between you and the people you lead and with any relationship…it should be built on honesty!