There are many key attributes required of a great business leader but if I’m forced to choose one it’s authenticity.
I’ve felt this way for a long time, and it was validated when I interviewed more than 300 executives across the world for my book Culture Spark: 5 Steps to Ignite and Sustain Organizational Growth. Then a Microsoft study came out that showed that 85% of employees name authenticity as the #1 quality a manager can have.
Recently the importance of authenticity was further reinforced for me in a meeting I had with a major client’s top executives and subsequently in a podcast discussion with two amazing thought leaders.
The first conversation revolved around trust, credibility, and respect in the context of innovative leadership and how these elements may have changed over the past 20 years. We dove deep into the steps that are necessary to employ should that level of trust need to be strengthened or regained. It was a fascinating, eye-opening engagement analyzing the impact in real-life situations across different business units. It all came down to authenticity.
I mentioned this encounter when talking with Steve Hart, senior consultant and executive coach at the Professional Development Group and former VP of HR at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and Leo Bottary, founder and managing partner of Peernovation, LLC, award-winning author of three books including Peernovation: What Peer Advisory Groups Can Teach Us About Building High Performing Teams.
Steve made the excellent point that the essential question to ask any leader is “Why should anyone be led by you?” The answers will be revealing. I trust that you and leaders in your organization will exemplify some of the following traits.
Leaders need to show that they care about their teams not simply based on the results they achieve but on who they are as unique human beings. As Leo said, “Leaders should try to be interested before trying to be interesting.”
This was clearly indicated by a Conference Board survey in which 52% of workers said that having a caring, empathetic leader is more important now than before the pandemic.
A classic example of such a leader is Microsoft’s Satya Nadella who credits his late son’s battle with cerebral palsy for teaching him the value of empathy and compassion which guided him in turning the company’s culture from know-it-alls to “learn-it-alls.” These were people who cared about acquiring new skills and helping others.
Transparent leaders not only share their true thoughts and feelings but also are open to feedback. They “tell it like it is”—the bad news as well as the good news. They communicate openly, with integrity, and frequently. They don’t sugarcoat but explain decisions and strategies in as much detail as they can.
What do I mean by vulnerability? Quite simply it’s being willing to admit that you’re not always right, and to be willing to accept honest, forthright feedback from members of your team when they inform you that you’re steering off course. It’s about not being afraid to show your sensitive, nurturing side.
Employees need to know that they can trust their leaders. Mislead them once and you create a situation from which it’s hard to recover. Being honest means telling people things they might not want to hear. It has been shown that authentic leaders, with their honesty and transparency, foster a more ethical and positive work environment which, in turn, boosts productivity.
Authentic leaders don’t play favorites. They acknowledge and reward people based on performance rather than giving special treatment to friends or sycophants. And the leader doesn’t put himself first. Behaving in a servant leadership way and getting rid of your individual ego is important. Show an interest in your people and what you can do for them rather than what they can do for you.
Here’s a staggering statistic. More than 80% of employees do not feel recognized or rewarded, according to Harvard Business School research. Employees crave appreciation and beyond the size of their paycheck. It costs nothing but simply requires an attitude of caring.
As Leo said, “They need to know that they’re heard and they’re valued, that you care about them and they’re not just some worker bee.” Authentic leaders don’t even have to think about doing it—it comes naturally.
While 96% of business decision makers and 95% of employees say that effective communication is crucial to keeping everyone engaged and informed it’s surprising how many leaders fail at this basic task. Communication is a two-way street. Listening, and acting, is vital. According to a Microsoft study employees who feel their companies use employee feedback to drive change are more satisfied (90% vs. 69%) and engaged (89% vs. 73%).
Be open to different perceptions and contributions. Be adaptable to the needs of your team. As Steve told me, “Leadership today is a curious combination of being both a warrior and an artist. On the one hand you’ve got to hold the line and share the benefit of your experience, especially when you want to push a particular solution because it’s the right thing to do But there are other times when you want to give people the opportunity to grow and learn and find their own way to success.
“Where we get into trouble is when the artist is called for, but we act as a warrior or vice versa. So we need to read the situation and be adaptive and flexible in the moment. You have to be a people reader, have the ability to show up in a way that is meaningful and purposeful to the person you’re leading at that moment.”
Millennials and Gen Zs are becoming a major part of the workforce brining new attitudes. “These aren’t trust first folks,” said Leo. “Their attitude is you’ve got to earn my trust. In other words, walking the talk becomes really important.”
Steve agreed, “They’re looking for a different and greater level of honesty out of the organizations they work for. They are much more willing to stand up for what they believe is right and leaders need to be ready to engage in conversations about fairness.”
Noted authority Bill George, author of the best-selling book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, is optimistic that the message about authenticity is getting through. He wrote, “I’m pleased to see corporations around the world are shifting to authentic leaders and moving away from the power-based command-and-control type leaders. Today, people don’t leave companies, they leave bad managers, so we need strong leaders at all levels—not just CEOs.”
He’s absolutely right. Authentic leadership is the cornerstone of organizational development. Companies must recognize and integrate its principles to foster trust in the workforce and sustain success.
Written by Jason Richmond.
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