4 qualities of authentic leadership

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To build trust you must reveal your true self and tune in to what’s happening around you.

Tiffany Sayers

Thousands of new books about leadership are published every year. However, gaining followers is much easier said than done. Effective leaders need to find ways to engage people and rouse a commitment to company goals. And that’s just the beginning.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?’ authors Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones found the response to a small trick question they put forward during their research quite startling.

They asked executives with more than ten years’ experience across dozens of companies, “Why should anyone be led by you?”

The response, without fail, was a “sudden, stunned hush. All you could hear were knees knocking.”


Because leading implies you have a following, and often we forget to be accountable to that. The pair concluded that leaders need to capture the minds, hearts and spirits of their followers, by having clear vision, energy, authority and strategic direction. However, this alone wasn’t enough.

They included four additional qualities:
  1. Show that you’re human, selectively revealing weaknesses
  2. Be a sensor: collect soft people data that lets you rely on intuition
  3. Manage employees with tough empathy. Care passionately about them and their work, while giving them only what they need to achieve their best
  4. Dare to be different; capitalise on your uniqueness
Let’s explore what these qualities mean in practice. 

1. Reveal your weaknesses

Emotional intelligence is about being human, showing kindness, compassion and flaws. Put simply, showing people that you’re imperfect builds trust and solidarity.

It’s hard not to draw on personal experiences when thinking about this. The CEO of Zinc Group, Peter Cleary, spoke to me over lunch once. He was in the kitchen, surrounded by the chaos of burning toast, exploding microwave meals, the office dog and rambling staff from all departments. But there he sat. In the midst of it all.

What he said over that lunch influenced many decisions I made over the course of the next two years. I asked him how his week was.

He responded with a story about some of the challenges he was facing after a difficult conference call he’d had with an international associate. He came across a bit critical, concerned and unsure. What he didn’t realise was that he was teaching me a huge lesson in leadership in the process. He showed me he was vulnerable, and that it was okay to be honest about it. In that moment, by letting me into his world, I became an advocate for him, his business and his ethos. Everything he said moving forward had more credibility, more weight and was more significant.

I believed his promise of putting people first, so great things follow, because he was authentic.  

Leaders take note: you’re more transparent than you think. Now, when I see or experience toxic workplace cultures, I think of what the ‘Cleary Effect’ would be in context there, and try to emulate his attitudes to change these behaviours. And blow me down, I’ve had huge success from it managing teams myself.

2. Become a sensor

‘To be aware’ is a nice way to summarise this. Aware of nonverbal cues, intonations and signals that exist all around you and that you can observe in people communicating with each other or simply going about their day. Using your intuition will give you foresight on potential issues or problems that could arise. A person with a good situational sensor can sniff out signals in the environment and have a conscious sense of what is going on around them.

Ignorance is not bliss in leadership. If anything, ignorance is the sign of very poor leadership.

Open your eyes and ears up to the wider goings-on of the company. Be present, engage with staff across the business and don’t limit your exposure only to the most senior executives. Diversify your network from the interns up, and play an active role in leading by setting an example and walking the walk (not just talking the talk because that’s too easy).

There is area for concern when honing this skill. Sensing is assumption, so be sure not to project. This can interfere with the truth. When making assumptions, validate your perceptions with a trusted advisor or a member of your inner team. 

3. Practise tough empathy

In a modern world, getting through a day without offending anyone is an achievement. And tough empathy leads into this point. This isn’t about returning from the latest interpersonal skills training program with “concern” for others’ as Goffee and Jones put it. They go on to explain, “Tough empathy means giving people what they need, not what they want…”

The point made in this section is that leaders need to distinguish themselves through qualities like imagination and expertise. They must show that they’re unique and worth of your fellowship, that they are genuine. And this doesn’t imply that to be a sound leader you must be worried about everything, or check in with staff constantly. You must use your sensors, and offer empathy when it is needed, in order to steer the ship back on course. As Goffee and Jones explain in their article:

“Those more apt to use tough empathy are people who really care about something. And when people care deeply about something—anything—they’re more likely to show their true selves. They will not only communicate authenticity, which is the precondition for leadership, but they will show that they are doing more than just playing a role. People do not commit to executives who merely live up to the obligations of their jobs.”

4. Dare to be different

It’s very easy nowadays to be safe. Be quiet. Let your work stand for itself and do the talking, or take a backseat in the boardroom during heated discussions. But if you can think of a more creative, dynamic solution to a situation or brief, say it. Dare to lead. Dare to be different. Think of all the most memorable people you’ve met in your life. What made them memorable?

Recently I attended a talk from Richard Sauerman, aka @the_brand_guy.

He’s different. Daring. Unforgettable. During his talk he took us out of our comfort zones and challenged everything we’ve been taught, including how we view ourselves. Instantly he was credible, an open book, pushing his audience to exist “outside the 7”, because (to wrap some context around this) everyone subconsciously rates themselves as a 7/10 but he encouraged us all to be 10/10s.

Richard capitalised on his uniqueness and inspired everyone. He dressed differently, set himself apart from the crowd, operated in the magic space outside the boxes he drew of society on the whiteboard.

Goffee and Jones summarise this point well:

“Inspirational leaders use separateness to motivate others to perform better. It is not that they are being Machiavellian but that they recognise instinctively that followers will push themselves if their leader is just a little aloof. Leadership, after all, is not a popularity contest.”

It’s not to say that all leaders need to find wild avenues to completely differentiate themselves; don’t let that be the point. The point is, that it’s the “determination to express their separateness” that makes them unique, memorable and inspirational.

Pulling it together

Being aware of these four key qualities put forward by Goffee and Jones is the necessary first step towards developing true leadership. Whether you’re an established leader with a large team, finding your feet in middle management, or new to your industry with hunger and ambition for leadership, the need for authenticity and trust has never been greater. Revealing yourself, showing selective vulnerability, listening to people, working on your sense of reason, delivering tough empathy as it’s needed (not wanted), and daring to differentiate yourself are all key drivers of how you’re perceived, and in turn, how effectively you’re followed. 

Tiffany Sayers is business director at Hardie Grant Media.

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