Business and management books galore continue to expound on the virtues of good leadership. But one simple truth that doesn't require poring over another 250 pages of text remains: Leadership (and life, really) is about people and relationships. Therefore, the best and most respected leaders are real people.
Or, if you prefer -- they are authentic.
That still-cringeworthy leadership cliché known as "authenticity" doesn't sit well in the cold, dog-eat-dog, conventional business world. But behaviors associated with the term, you'll soon find out below, are crucial for motivating, inspiring, and engaging your tribe.
Here are three clear reasons why authentic leaders are set apart from the pack.
1. They speak their truth.
Sometimes when the going gets rough and the pressure is on, you'll find people in management roles conveniently hiding or withdrawing, stonewalling or putting on a mask that conceals what they're really thinking or scheming. You may find your boss having a sudden penchant for ordering you around, or forcefully commanding attention with a false charisma that's now easy to see through. Raise the red flag because something's up, and he's not coming clean with the truth.
Speaking truth means not saying things to sugarcoat, to try to please others or to try to look good in front of your peers.
Speaking truth means not betraying yourself or others by using words or making decisions that are not aligned with your best self, or the best interests of your team or company.
Speaking truth means speaking clearly, honestly and with integrity. That's why such leaders usually have great reputations and so well respected.
It's highly unlikely that you will hear a leader who speaks her truth being talked about around the coffee machine in the break room on Monday morning for "throwing someone under the bus."
2. They display courageous vulnerability.
There's immense power in in being openly vulnerable. It allows a leader to emotionally connect with his or her employees -- the very definition of employee engagement. And when employees connect above the neck with their leaders, they will walk through walls for them.
Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, Europe's leading experts on organizational culture, leadership and change, discovered that inspirational leaders display the quality of "selectively showing their weakness."
In their research, they describe Virgin Group founder and billionaire Richard Branson as being particularly effective at communicating his vulnerability. "He is ill at ease and fumbles incessantly when interviewed in public. It's a weakness, but it's Richard Branson," state the authors. "That's what revealing a weakness is all about: showing your followers that you are genuine and approachable -- human and humane."
Best-selling author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown says vulnerability is "the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." In her research, Brown says that vulnerability is not a weakness but one of our most accurate measures of courage. She told Inc.'s Leadership Forum a few years back, "I cannot find a single incident of courage that is not completely underpinned by vulnerability ... Think about the last time you saw someone do something that was brave, and I guarantee you vulnerability will be there."
3. They manage with compassion.
In a tweet two weeks ago, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner left no doubt about his feelings on the impact of compassion on your followers.
Big misconception about managing compassionately is that it's a "soft" skill. Most compassionate people I know are typically the strongest.-- Jeff Weiner (@jeffweiner) October 6, 2017
He says, "Compassion can and should be taught, not only throughout a child's K-12 curriculum, but in higher education and corporate learning and development programs as well. I can't think of a more worthwhile thing to teach."
The Case for Compassion in the Workplace
Chade-Meng Tan ("Meng"), the former Google software engineer known as Jolly Good Fellow, delivered a very popular TED Talk a few years back where he spoke on the impact "Googlers" (Google employees) make in their global communities through acts of compassion. These are mostly self-organized events at the grassroots level performed on company time, many without permission, thanks to Google's notoriously open and flexible management style of serving others.
One example is Googlers rallying to fund-raise enough money to build a hospital in an impoverished region in India where 200,000 people live without a single medical facility (it happened). Another example is Google engineers and product managers spontaneously coming together to build a tool to allow earthquake victims in Haiti to find their loved ones. And the list goes on and on.
But what about the business case for compassion, you ask? How do these examples of widespread compassion at Google translate to business outcomes?
The Two Benefits of Compassion
1. It creates highly effective business leaders.
In Jim Collins' comprehensive research as documented in Good to Great, he calls them "Level 5 Leaders." Meng accurately depicts such leaders in his TED Talk:
"These are leaders who are highly ambitious for the greater good. And because they're ambitious for a greater good, they feel no need to inflate their own egos. And they, according to the research, make the best business leaders. And if you look at these qualities in the context of compassion, we find that the cognitive and affective components of compassion -- understanding people and empathizing with people -- inhibits, tones down, what I call the excessive self-obsession that's in us, therefore creating the conditions for humility."
2. It creates an inspiring workforce.
Meng says, "Employees mutually inspire each other towards greater good. It creates a vibrant, energetic community where people admire and respect each other. I mean, you come to work in the morning, and you work with three guys who just up and decide to build a hospital in India. It's like how can you not be inspired by those people -- your own coworkers? So this mutual inspiration promotes collaboration, initiative and creativity. It makes us a highly effective company."