Being a leader means stepping out from the crowd and making our mark. Every leader is an individual, but the best of us have the same 10 characteristics in common.
There are many leadership styles and schools of thought but many of them have identified similar qualities found in all good leaders—and authenticity and vulnerability are key traits. Authentic and vulnerable leaders inspire loyalty, trust, and confidence in the people around them, creating immense value for businesses, the people in those organizations, and the leaders themselves.
It’s not always easy to be this kind of leader, however. Authenticity requires practice. Vulnerability takes courage—and courage feeds off of vulnerability.
“Then one day, I found myself on a military base talking Special Forces. And I just asked a simple question: Give me an example of courage that you’ve seen or witnessed in your life, or that you’ve done yourself, that didn’t require uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure … and there was just silence until one guy just raised his hand and said, ‘Three tours, ma’am. There is no courage without vulnerability.’”
Positive vulnerability—a vital component of being an authentic leader—unleashes this courage and has other great benefits, including better communication, a constructive acknowledgment of mistakes, and the ability to connect with others.
“Connection is why we’re here,” says Brown. “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”
1. Developing self-awareness
Being an authentic leader starts with knowing who we are and understanding that our business is built on, and flows from, us. Cultivating our strengths as entrepreneurs is the first step on the road to leadership. It’s a self-discovery process which spotlights our weaknesses along the way. This kind of introspection makes us honest—and that’s needed more than anything else to make an authentic journey.
2. Having a clearly-defined purpose
Why are we in business? Is it love? Is it to provide a product/service we’re great at creating and to make money from it? If we want to operate with purpose, we need to combine all three of those—our passion and our ability to perform and to transform that effort into profit—to discover our Why and be authentic from our core.
A purpose-driven company evolves faster than a merely profit-seeking one because purpose benefits everyone—businesses, employees and customers.
3. Knowing your values and seeking those who share them
An authentic Why let a leader translate purpose into values—a set of guidelines that can be shared with a team. These values flow from the leader’s self-awareness and bond entrepreneurs, staff, customers, and stakeholders together.
Shared values are a guiding star to navigate the future. When we provide and embody those values as leaders, we attract all the right people and become the example for cohesive and consistent company culture.
4. Listening authentically
Authentic (aka active) listening differs from the other skills. In a way, it depends on not being ourselves, at least our instinctive selves. We need to learn to let go and do nothing while a team member or customer speaks. An authentic leader’s point of view kind of disappears as they listen by putting themselves and their preconceived notions—along with what they plan to say next—on hold while the other person takes center stage.
Just be present with them and don’t interrupt. I’ve found it helpful to practice by focusing on what the speaker is saying until they are finished and then stating my understanding of what I heard, followed by asking the speaker if it’s correct.
It’s that simple to listen authentically. Notice that I called it “simple,” not necessarily easy—at first. But once authentic listening becomes second nature, it can yield huge benefits. If we’re right in our understanding of a problem or a recommendation, we can move on to action. And if we’re wrong, we can ask for the story to be repeated or rephrased until everyone feels heard and understood. As Authentic leaders, we always should come from a place of curiosity, not expertise.
5. Not being a power Scrooge
Ebenezer Scrooge was obviously a terrible leader, at least before his Yuletide conversion. He micromanaged one employee mercilessly while keeping all the power for himself. He never left the office. He stayed there, convinced his miserable clerk would screw everything up and cost him money. Scrooge may be a fictional character, but Charles Dickens was certainly on to something, as we’ve all encountered a leader like that.
Don’t be a power Scrooge in your business—delegate and empower!
Authentic leaders know the strengths of others because they know their own. They share power with confidence. They value people and demonstrate faith by entrusting them with responsibility. This empowers their team with some control over where the business is going and helps combat the number-one cause of disconnection and depression in the workplace.
6. Accountability replacing blame
The typical factors in a workplace drama are of little interest to authentic leaders. Instead, they reframe the blame narrative into one where conflict can become constructive. True leaders aren’t interested in pointing fingers. They want to forge a team where everyone knows their role but aren’t afraid to drop the ball once in a while.
Clarity of purpose and the metrics that measure it help you reduce subjectivity when managing your people. This becomes an open and honest conversation of what was expected and what was delivered. And we all learn from reflecting on the things that we did right and those that we did wrong.
7. Sharing our experiences, good and bad
Authenticity means embracing the value of all our experiences. Authentic leaders accept and admit we stumble or fall, sometimes. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1910 speech at the Sorbonne in Paris captures it well:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Courageous leaders with confident teams understand that failure at some things is inevitable. When we value the lessons of our highs and lows and share them honestly with our staff, we’re gaining their trust and building a bond in two important ways.
First, we’re being confidently vulnerable and open (in short, human) and there’s a wealth of research that proves employees respond strongly to this. Second, we’re empowering those around us with knowledge about what worked for us and what didn’t. I know that when I finally decided to share vulnerably with my team, the whole dynamic of my business changed for the better.
8. Being in the present while visualizing the future
We entrepreneurs often feel the need to be in many places at once, when we really only need to be in two: the present moment, and the future. When we have a purpose in place, we always have one foot in both. It also ensures our present actions align with the desired results. If we hit a hurdle, we don’t need to lose traction. Good leaders stay focused on the long-term goal and realign the present to get back on track.
9. Meaning what you say and follow through
Integrity and authenticity are two sides of the same coin. If our purpose and values align, we show integrity every time. Strong values make our words authentic because we’re not just talking—we’re living them. This creates leader-employees, customers, and stakeholders can count on. And interestingly, being authentic and practicing integrity every day makes it easier to be a leader.
10. Being good to yourself
A leader who works themselves into the ground is a danger to themselves and their team. I’ve done it—and suffered in a hundred ways through burnout and stress. Often the business and employees will then catch that disease. We can’t forget to take care of ourselves. And you’ll know you’ve made it as a leader when you’re OK with stepping away.
Our businesses may be our passion, but they are only one part of life. You own it. It doesn’t (or it shouldn’t) own you. And when we work at being authentic leaders who create an authentic, consistent, and empowered workplace, we discover the freedom to choose the life we want to live.
Authentic and vulnerable leaders thrive and connect
There’s a good reason to become an authentic, vulnerable leader. They are open to new ideas, often ones born of mistakes. They connect with others, delegate effectively, and hold themselves accountable. And the net effect helps entrepreneurs become better leaders with a clearer view of the future.
Book a keynote presentation with Cesar for more information on discovering your own brand of leadership and empowering your business so you can live life by design.