You Want to Be an Authentic Leader

  • Author: Erin Hatzikostas
  • Marlborough, MA, USA

Over the last year as You Want to Be an Authentic Leader, you’ve worn countless sweatshirts on Zoom calls, taken meetings while walking, and even brought Fido, your adorable Shih Tzu, into a few calls. Well done. However, and I hate to break it to you, that doesn’t necessarily make you an “authentic leader”. The […]

Over the last year as You Want to Be an Authentic Leader, you’ve worn countless sweatshirts on Zoom calls, taken meetings while walking, and even brought Fido, your adorable Shih Tzu, into a few calls. Well done.

However, and I hate to break it to you, that doesn’t necessarily make you an “authentic leader”.

The pandemic clearly was a massive tailwind for authenticity in the workplace. And I think it’s safe to say that this step-back from polished perfection has been a refreshing positive amongst all the tragedy of the past year+.

But, being a true authentic leader takes much more than wearing a hoodie to a video meeting. Authentic leaders are always much further ahead of the “normal” curve.

What do I mean by that? Well, first it’s important to understand the true definition of authenticity, which is more than simply “being yourself”.

You Want to Be an Authentic Leader

In my book, You Do You(ish), I talk in detail (with a dose of snarky humor and sprinkle of barnyard language) about the business case for being authentic. I lay out a framework, “The Six Principles of Strategic Authenticity”, where I guide you through the key components of authenticity that you can actively use as your secret weapon to success.

But, if you’re a cut-to-the-chase kinda person, here are some things you need to STOP doing if you want to be considered an authentic leader and reap the tremendous benefits that come from wearing that badge.

1.   Sending out email communications with buzzwords and BS.
You gotsta stop with the check-the-box communications with your team. News flash: they don’t read them. Or, if they do, it really does nothing for their motivation. People are dying for communications that talk from the heart and are authentic.

Instead, tell a story that is a metaphor or inspiration for what you’re trying to communicate. Use a dash of humility to connect with your employees. The more less-than-perfect it is, the better.

(And for God’s sake, leave your picture off the communication. They know what you look like. And don’t even get me started on “On behalf of” emails.)

2.   Telling your team to take a “real” vacation but then do the opposite when you take a vacation.
Authentic leaders don’t talk; they demonstrate. And there’s no place better to demonstrate (and with more current hypocritic offenders) then when you take a vacation. Remember, people listen to words, but they emulate action. This is true when you’re a little baby and for goodness sake, it doesn’t end when you become an adult.

Rather than “blah, blah, blah” about how you want your employees to act, demonstrate what you want them to be and do. When you go on a vacation, the best thing you can do for your team is…go on a vacation. Authentic leaders aren’t martyrs or heroes. They are a beacon for what those around them want to be. Be that person.

3.   Making your team do non-valuable work, because that’s what’s handed down to you.
As I mentioned, authentic leaders don’t always follow what’s considered “normal”. I.e. they break the rules from time to time, and replace them with new rules.

The “authoritative” piece of their authentic identity isn’t about being a dictator (uh yeah, duh) but rather to use it to push back on the BS that weighs their team down.

I recently surveyed people on LinkedIn*, asking them, “If you’re burnt toast at work, what one thing do you need most from your company?” Over one-third selected that they needed less unnecessary, BS work.

Your employees don’t need more people, flexibility, or reorgs. Most people simply need help reducing the internal rigmarole. Authentic leaders despise and cut-out unnecessary work wherever possible, as they see this as opportunity cost lost for their employees to work on more meaningful work (and have their employees catch a breather…and be happy…and attract great talent…and…).

Survey your team for a list of items that are unnecessarily weighing them down (I would suggest putting fancy, internal PowerPoints on that list straight away). Then, categorize them based on items you can stop, items you can make simpler, and items that unfortunately need to remain. This is one of the most powerful exercises you can do for your team, and it certainly will collect you loads of authentic leader points!

4.   Starting your team meetings with a snoozy run-through of the agenda.
Organizing agenda items and “directing traffic” on a meeting is what a typical leader does. But an authentic leader is always thinking about how they can inspire and motivate, often in an unexpected way.

One of my favorite quotes is by Colin Powell: “You know you’re a good leader when people follow you out of curiosity.” Authentic leaders know that one of the key characteristics is to continually be a bit unexpected, so people click off their autopilot button, lean in, and wonder what will come next.

Start your meetings with something a bit less expected, e.g. a story, a picture, a metaphor, or a video. For example, one of my favorite videos to demonstrate the power of storytelling in sales is a clip from the movie, Tommy Boy.

Tommy’s hilarious explanation to the waitress, Helen, about why he sucks as a salesperson, followed by his epiphany (when he makes the “sale” to Helen) helps prime others as to why I believe in the power of storytelling. But more importantly, it puts them on the edge of their seat, wondering just what I might say or show next.

Now, you might be thinking, I have to come up with some clever video or story every time I lead a meeting?! No, it doesn’t have to be complex. It can be as simple as connecting the meeting goal to the weed pulling you did in the garden that morning or telling a more direct and literal story works too (e.g. a story about the last product launch and what you want to avoid this time).

In my book, I walk you through a simple, step-by-step process you can follow to start becoming a storytelling machine at work. If you’re looking to gain trust, connection, and followership (plus, stand out to the big-guns above you), there is no better trick in the authentic leadership playbook than storytelling.

5.   Hiding your children or pets behind your coffee cup on a Zoom call.
It’s that big moment in the meeting. You’re presenting your organization’s results and just as you click on slide 1, your three year-old comes running in to tell you about the amazing…poop she just did in the potty. You side-eye her and instantly become a ventriloquist, hoping no one else sees that you’re, well, human.

There is no bigger authentic leadership win-win than to bring your kids into your work. Sure, you can’t have them huddled in your space all day long. But if you can take an approach where you don’t just show others they’re there, but also include them in your work, that is some extremely powerful schtuff.

When others see this most basic human trait, there is an instant connection. But the positive benefits go well beyond your authentic leader status. Bringing your children into the conversation – both within a meeting setting and outside of that setting – is one of the most powerful things you can do for your children.

You see, authentic leaders don’t operate with a Manage Mindset, they operate with a Model Mindset. They are more focused on demonstrating the things they want for others. And that doesn’t just mean their employees. Modeling the future you want your children to have, e.g. seeing you in a big-girl/boy role, seeing you interact with others in a positive, inclusive way, etc., is one of the most positive benefits of being an authentic leader.

At the end of the day, I like to say that authenticity is about exposing who you are, when people least expect it. When you lead others with this approach, the path to connection and trust is lightening speed. And we all know that leaders and organizations that have increased trust, have better results.

I hope you now see that authenticity isn’t an elusive unicorn. Being an authentic leader can be achieved through conscious action, experimentation, and some guts to buck the norm. Said another way, do the things that will make people follow you, if only out of curiosity.

Erin Hatzikostas (i.e. me) is an internationally-recognized leader on the impact of authenticity in the workplace and the founder of b Authentic inc, whose mission is to help people and companies use authenticity as their secret weapon to success. Erin is the best-selling author of You Do You(ish), a TEDx speaker, coach-sultant, and the co-host of an offbeat career and leadership podcast, b Cause with Erin & Nicole.

* This survey ran for one week, starting on May 18, 2021, and had 129 responses.

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