Every business owner and startup founder knows they are expected to lead the charge in starting and growing their business. In my experience as a business advisor and mentor, I find that most believe they are doing a convincing job, but in many cases, their key team members are not so sure.
In reality, leadership is a function of what your team believes, not what you believe.
This is an area where perception is more important than reality. I find that leadership is a hard thing to fake. Authentic leaders start with a strong sense of values, and some deep beliefs in their mission and purpose, but just as importantly, they are able to personally inspire and build trusting relationships with the people around them who can make things happen in the business.
I found this concept of authentic leadership outlined well in a recent book, Impromptu, by Judith Humphrey. She has coached thousands of leaders over the years on how to inspire and influence people when they speak, both formally and informally.
She offers a half dozen sharing strategies for demonstrating authenticity that I believe everyone in a leadership position should practice:
1. Share your presence.
The starting point of projecting authenticity is to be mentally and emotionally present and focused on people when you are physically present.
We have all had bosses who seem to always be in another world, or take constant interruptions, when you are looking for attention. Make sure your authentic self is always perceptibly present.
2. Share your ideas.
Authenticity also means having the courage to share your thinking. Some business leaders feel more comfortable or obliged to echo what others think, or give you the company line, but never seem to have a view of their own. With classic leaders, like Steve Jobs, the team always knew his bold ideas for design and direction.
3. Share your beliefs and values.
Recognized leaders inspire others with their beliefs and values. Many years ago, I had occasion to work directly with Bill Gates at Microsoft on DOS.
People on his team clearly waited for his technical insights, and couldn't wait to make them a reality. His approach was not always polite, but it was definitely authentic.
4. Share your feelings.
If you announce a reorganization or business pivot in a purely factual manner, you will come across as unfeeling and insensitive. It's important to use your own words, with real passion, to be viewed as authentic.
Just don't let that passion turn negative, by venting or making excuses about poor customers or the economy.
5. Share your vulnerabilities.
Authentic leaders are forthcoming about both their strengths and weaknesses. I once worked for a startup CEO who always pretended to have all the product answers, even when it was clear to everyone that his technical depth did not match his marketing passions. Humbly asking for expert help makes leaders stronger.
6. Share your stories.
Personal stories are always more effective in delivering a message, and in establishing the authenticity of the speaker. Team members find it easy to relate to stories about learning experiences and family challenges. Everyone wants to grow and develop their own abilities, and tend to follow people who are models of that ability.
With these initiatives, I believe every one of us can become a better leader, and be perceived that way by our peers and team members. While we are talking about perceptions and authenticity, another key element to watch is your body language.
The wrong body language can easily undo all your efforts to create openness, warmth, and interest in the other person.
For example, if you intend to project openness, never cross your arms, or stand and hover above a peer or team member who is sitting down for a discussion. Don't forget the power of good eye contact in making you appear approachable, likeable, trustworthy, and believable.
There are many other body language elements that will reinforce or dilute your efforts to improve leadership.
Unfortunately, I still find too many entrepreneurs who are convinced that building a business is primarily about getting the technology right, and finding the money. In my experience, it's more about finding the right people, and being able to be the leader that they need.
That's why the investors I know say they invest in the jockey, not the horse. Be the best jockey that you can be.