Leadership has been written and talked about for decades, with great authors defining it in different ways calling it different things. In the end, most of these folks have been talking about the same things.

The simple truth is that leadership (and life, really) is about people and relationships. And you can start with the proven fact that great leaders are real people. Or, if you prefer -- they are authentic.

But the term "authenticity" doesn't jive well in a cold, transactional, business world. We need to unpack this for day-to-day application so most heads will nod and say, "Ah, I get this and I can do it."

Here's how exceptional leaders make a difference by displaying their authenticity:

1. They Show Up with Their True Selves

Well, what does that mean? Lets dig deeper. Sometimes when the rubber meets the road, the tendency is to hide, withdraw, stonewall or put on a mask.

And that mask hides who we truly are; maybe through how we order people around, or how we forcefully command attention with a false charisma.

Ever been around boisterous and loud leaders who are three decibels above everyone else? There's a perception that because I speak loudly, I will command respect. But false charisma is driven by hubris, which we all know is not sustainable. 

Authenticity is showing up with your best and true self. It's leading from your mind and your heart. You show up with:

  • Emotional honesty
  • Excellence in everything you do
  • A great attitude
  • An openness to receive feedback
  • Self-awareness of not only your feelings, but those of others in your sphere of influence.

2. They Treat Themselves (and Others) as Human Beings

Great leaders display authenticity by making room daily for laughter and joy, while accepting that they're not perfect and that they make mistakes.

These leaders will resist the tendency to protect themselves at all costs. When they make mistakes, they will admit them.

And when employees make mistakes, it's safe for them to risk being open enough to say, "Hey boss, I messed up." They can say this due to the high levels of trust built over time with those healthy bosses.

3. They Approach Conflict by Looking at All Sides

Authentic leaders don't assume and jump into conclusions. They look at difficult situations from several angles. They talk to several people for perspective, get clarity, and then determine a course of action.

Sometimes the final decision may not be popular, but it's always the right one. You seldom see that person casting blame and pointing fingers. Have you heard the expression: "For every finger you point, there are three pointing back at you"?

In dealing with conflict, authentic leaders have the courage to run toward the eye of the storm ... because they know that cutting through a conflict to resolve a problem with respect and dignity is easier than the negative consequences of running away from a conflict.

4. They Speak Their Truth

Want to get real? Don't say things to sugarcoat, to try to please others or to try to look good in front of your peers.

Don't betray yourself or others by using words or making decisions that are not aligned with who you are.

It's highly unlikely that you will hear such a leader being talked about around water coolers on Monday morning for "throwing someone under the bus."

Getting real means speaking clearly, honestly and with integrity. That's why such leaders usually have great reputations.

5. They Are Teachable

Another way of being real is to gladly accept the role of a learner. Authentic leaders know it will make them better. They know that each person has something important to teach them. Ever heard of a "reverse mentor"?

The truth is that good leaders don't always know what is needed and what to do -- so they are willing to ask questions, and are sincerely interested in the answers.

6. They Listen to Understand

Authentic leaders listen to understand -- a rare and forgotten leadership skill. They don't dominate the conversation by talking only about themselves or the task at hand.

So in meetings or one-on-ones, they listen and reflect back what they heard to clarify ("What I hear you saying is ..."), and they ask questions to probe the other person's feelings or opinions on the topic of conversation. That can be as simple as: "Tell me how you feel about this."

The listening has one modus operandi: How can I help this other person? This will give you the edge as a leader to build trust when others see that you have their interests in mind.

7. They Are Accessible

Leaders who are real with their people are out in front of the organization sharing plans for the future, even during hard times when it's hard to look someone in the eye.

They don't hide behind closed doors or conveniently delegate important communication needs to others.

Employees will look to leaders for information, clear expectations, and status of what's going on when the chips are down. This is when it's the best time to get real.

These authentic leaders are especially adept at "walking their four corners." They are among the people, joining their meetings, being interested in what they're doing, and connecting with them on an emotional level.

8. They Promote Trust

All the other seven ways to get real culminate with this priceless trait. People respond to leaders they can trust, and are motivated to the rafters in trustworthy organizations. Why? Because they feel safe.

When employees are allowed to take risks, exercise their creativity, communicate ideas openly, and work alongside their leaders as partners -- not worker bees -- in a spirit of collaboration, you will see your employee satisfaction surveys skyrocket.

All it takes is for you to get real with them.