Leading with Authenticity: Be Yourself and Share Yourself

Dan Ward by Dan Ward, APR, CPRC

Leadership and authenticity. Two words that mean so much yet so often seem to be in short supply, especially in conjunction with the other.

True leadership is impossible without authenticity; no one wants to follow a leader in whom they don’t believe.

But what is authenticity and how does a leader demonstrate it? And what role does strategic communications play in establishing authentic leadership?

For a great example of authentic communication from a business leader, look no further than this message from Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson from March 2020, when the world was just beginning to shut down due to the pandemic.

As Carmine Gallo, who writes about leadership communication for Forbes, shared soon after, “authentic leadership is, by definition, real and genuine … a way of acting and communicating that inspires loyalty.” Sorenson hit the mark because he “lowered the shield. He was candid, vulnerable, humble, emotional and hopeful.”

I was curious to learn how other leaders can “hit the mark” as Sorenson did, so I turned to leadership experts who write for some of the leading business magazines to explore the concepts of authentic leadership and transparent communication. Here are a few of the points that stood out:

  • In a Fast Company article by Beck Bamberger on strategies CEOs use to build transparent businesses, SquareFoot Founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum recommends leaders “Share More.” In his case, he hosts biweekly meetings in which team members are free to ask questions about the state of the business. “If you’re upfront with [staff] about what you’re working on and where you’re giving attention, they will more likely ask to get involved and chip in with solutions.”
  • Writing for Inc., author Peter Economy shared 9 Powerful Ways Great Leaders Show Real Authenticity, including two that really stood out to me:
    • They genuinely express themselves – “Truly authentic leaders aren’t afraid to tell it like it is – to share their true self with others.”
    • They always ask for second opinions – “Truly authentic leaders … acknowledge – and this is transparency at its best – that they may have some prejudice or tendencies to look at things a certain way and, therefore, seek input from others with varying views so that they might come up with the best unbiased decision possible.”
  • In an article about Leading with Authenticity in a Changing World, Neal Stanton, Co-CEO of Ramp, writes that you should “Show Your True Colors – Leading with authenticity also means showing your personality … being authentic can also mean being much more real with your teams. When your key constituents see you as relatable and human, it can create an environment of mutual respect where people want to follow your lead.”

There are a number of companies that are great examples in demonstrating transparency in leadership and authentic communication, and we’re proud to work with many of them. Take, for example, Beacon College, the first institution in the nation to be fully accredited to award bachelor degrees exclusively to students with learning disabilities, ADHD and other learning differences.

When the College made the decision in late summer 2020 to move to a hybrid model of instruction, which would bring the majority of students back into the classroom (deemed critical for ensuring student success), leaders knew transparent communication would be essential. The College made significant changes to its campus policies and communicated them consistently and frequently with students, parents and the community, and began publishing a “Wellness Climate Scale” that provided a daily update on the status of COVID-19 cases on campus.

The transparency displayed by College leaders helped to reinforce their authentic leadership. They communicated early and often about the new “rules of the road,” and why they were important … parents were trusting them not only with the education of their adult children, but also with their health and safety.

I’ve had the honor of working with authentic leaders like those at Beacon College for more than two decades at Curley & Pynn, and learning from them has helped to inform my own leadership style. When it comes to authenticity and transparency, there are a few rules I’ve learned to follow.

Here are my Five Strategies for Authentic Leadership:

  1. Admit your shortcomings and delegate to overcome them.

Too often, those who lead organizations and departments (especially those who have recently moved into such a leadership position) feel as though they must display a sense of invincibility in order to convince their team to follow. Take my word for it as someone who has been there, your team KNOWS you don’t have all the answers, and are much more likely to follow your lead if you not only admit that, but also give them roles to play in answering the questions you cannot. As we learned from the Marriott example, vulnerability is an important component of authentic leadership.

  1. Be transparent, but acknowledge there are limits.

Transparent communication is important for any leader. The team should understand your vision for achieving corporate mission and goals; they should know the game plan, strategies and messaging; and, they should receive regular updates on the health of the organization. But they should also understand that transparency has its limits, and that in any organization there is some information that must be tightly held. Transparent communication does not always mean sharing every detail about your decision-making; instead, it really boils down to honest communication.

  1. Make time for empathy.

I care deeply about the team at Curley & Pynn. My wife and I consider the people with whom I work as part of our family. But one of the toughest lessons I learned after purchasing the firm is that leaders can’t assume their teams know that they care for them as individuals and not just employees. I got so bogged down in the day-to-day management of the firm that I forgot to show how much I care. I learned that just as you must schedule time to pay bills and review contracts, you must also make time for empathy … to connect with your team as individuals. “How are you doing?” is one of the most important questions you can ask, but it’s also a question that can be easily forgotten. For people like me who are process-driven, displaying empathy does not come naturally. We must work at it and make time for it.

  1. Empower those around you to hold you accountable.

If authentic leadership demands that you admit you don’t have all the answers, then it stands to reason that you must also admit that you’re going to make mistakes. Lord knows that I make plenty of them. As author David Baker points out in “The Business of Expertise,” a leader’s primary job is to make decisions, but they won’t always be correct.

If you want to decrease the frequency with which you make the wrong decision, empower your team to speak up, hold you accountable for mistakes, and for want of a better phrase, warn you when you’re about to step in it.

  1. Be consistent, and in times of crisis, ever-present.

As the head of a strategic communications firm, it should come as no surprise that I believe communication is key to demonstrating authentic leadership. If you want people to follow your lead, you must communicate where you’re taking them and you must consistently reinforce the message.

That is especially true in times of crisis. When your company is facing significant headwinds, as nearly every company has during the pandemic, the rules above become even more important. You need to consistently demonstrate transparency in communication, display empathy, define roles and empower others to hold you accountable.

And you must step up the frequency of communication. At our shop, this has meant sticking to our schedule for all-staff meetings even when members of the leadership team are unavailable, and beginning a weekly “company update” message that we’re likely to continue even after the current crisis passes.

A quick Google search will turn up dozens of similar lists on transparent, authentic leadership. In truth, it really comes down to this: be yourself and share yourself. If you’re authentic and honest with yourself, and are vulnerable enough to let others see who you are as a leader and what you hope to achieve with and for them, others will follow.

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