7 ways to be an authentic leader

Being authentic in any walk of life is about being honest, taking responsibility for your actions and working to a set of clearly communicated principles.

I’ve been writing LinkedIn articles for my followers for a little while now, getting some great feedback and comments. So I sent out a poll, to see what topic people wanted to hear about next, and the subject with the most votes was ‘authentic leadership’.

What does this mean? Being authentic in any walk of life is about being honest, taking responsibility for your actions and working to a set of clearly communicated principles. For me, it’s important to be authentic in both your personal and professional life – and it’s even more important when you are leading a team or running a business.

I’ve had many years of experience as a leader in one way or another, and now I’m working with businesses as a consultant, helping them to set and reach their goals. Whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m working with, I’m always completely open about how I work and what people can expect from me. And so I’ve put together the 7 key approaches that I think are essential to being an authentic leader.

  1. Be prepared to be brutally honest. As a leader, your job is to make sure the business is a success. Of course, you need to look after your people too, but if things aren’t working or there is a problem that needs to be addressed, you need to be honest and clear about it. You should also be prepared to explain those decisions, rather than imposing them from above. Your team will respect you – and for me, it’s always been far more important to be respected than liked.
  2. Apologise when you need to. You won’t always make the right decisions or say the right things. And so there will be times when you need to apologise. Many leaders forget this – and either brush off the issue, or try and lay the blame somewhere else. This is bad for your culture, for your relationships and for the level of respect people have for you. Having the humility needed to apologise is a key attribute of an authentic leader and should be one of your main values.Related to this is taking time for self-reflection, and being willing to learn. You can nearly always do things better. There will be other people in the business, or in your network that you can learn from. Take the time to think about areas where you could improve and take steps towards improving them. Continual improvement is as important for a leader as it is for the business.
  3. Be willing to change course. When there are good reasons to change your strategy or approach, don’t be afraid to do it. Many leaders worry that this is a sign of weakness – that once a course is decided on, it must be pursued at all costs. But this is where you must put your personal pride to one side and think about what is best for the business. If things need to change, then change them. If you don’t, in my experience, you will bitterly regret it.It’s important to remember in this context that everyone in your team should be encouraged to make a contribution – to have a say. You may be the final decision maker, but you’re not so special that you can do everything by yourself. Invite and encourage everyone to take part.
  4. Demonstrate empathy and compassion. Remember that you are working with people, not numbers – irrespective of the size of your organisation, and you rarely know what is going on in those people’s wider lives. This can be a tricky approach to get right. Of course, as the leader, you are integral to your team, and part of your job is to support the people in that team. But you must also maintain a level of professional distance and not get too close – but without being aloof or unapproachable. It’s true that familiarity really does breed contempt, and while you should be able to bring empathy and compassion to your work, you still need to be in a position to make and carry out difficult decisions.
  5. Do whatever it takes to get the job done. In many businesses, particularly in the construction and general trades sectors, leaders have often worked their way up through the business. I started as a labourer, and I’ve never thought twice about getting involved in a project if it’s needed, in whatever capacity.For example, when I was a Contracts Director, I secured a night work project at the Natural History Museum. We had put together a team of six, and we were waiting for the lorry to arrive with the materials to arrive so we could get started. It didn’t turn up, and we couldn’t find a replacement. Then, within 45 minutes, along came Hayden Smith – our Chairman – driving the vehicle himself so that we could do the job – I assume he had an HGV licenceI joined the team and laboured for them all night so we could finish the job in time.
  6. Always do what you say you will. People need to know they can rely on you. They need to know that if you commit to something, or make a promise, it will happen. For that reason, you should lead by example, always doing something if you’ve said you’ll do it. In the same way, think carefully about the commitments and promises you make, so that you are confident you can keep to them.
  7. Be visible. One of the biggest mistakes new leaders make is to shut themselves inside an office behind a desk and give the impression that they are no longer part of the team. Getting a leadership role is just the first step – you then have to learn how to manage and work with people to get the best results for the business. A big part of that is being visible and accessible. So, have an open-door policy where people can come and talk to you at any time. Walk the floors, go out to sites, join meetings. Just make sure that everyone knows you’re there, and that you’re interested in what’s happening.

My own experience shows that it’s important not to get carried away with yourself when you are promoted to a leadership position.
When I first became MD of TRAD Scaffolding, I took out a two-page advertorial in the Construction News magazine, talking about all the things I was going to do with the business. When I proudly showed it to Hayden Smith, he said: “It’s really good, Des, but it needs to say a lot less about you and a lot more about me!” I had conveniently forgotten that I was working in a business that Hayden had built up over the previous 25 years, and had managed very well on his own before I came along 🤪

So don’t assume you are special, or ‘the chosen one’ – you’re not. In fact, a promotion is exactly the time when you should make sure you stay grounded and don’t get carried away with yourself.

Similarly, when you are in a position to promote others, you should always think about the good of the business. Look for people who already have good leadership qualities and will fit with the team that’s already in place. Offer development and training opportunities to people who may have great technical skills, but need to work on the ‘softer’ people skills that good leaders need. And remember that not everyone wants to be a leader, so don’t push promotion of that type on people who really don’t want it.

In my own experience, there have been one or two occasions where, because of issues with the organisational structure, I have overpromoted people. The lesson I learned is that all you’re doing is resigning yourself to the fact that, within a relatively short space of time, those people will have left the business – they will be unable to fulfil the new role, and they can’t go back to the old one. So you might have a short-term fix, but it will come with long-term consequences.

And finally, I have always struggled with businesses that refer to themselves as a ‘family’ – even though it is something that I have done myself. It’s very common, and I understand why it happens, but your business is not a family. I really liked a recent post on LinkedIn by Amelia Sordell, who firmly believes that ‘family’ is completely the wrong word to use about your colleagues.

As she says, families don’t have to dismiss each other, they don’t monitor each other’s performance and they don’t leave the family for better pay or conditions somewhere else. You’re a professional team, and that’s how you should behave.

So, be visible, be honest, be humble. Take responsibility for your actions and be prepared to work in any capacity to move the business forward. Think about the people you are working with, and keep your promises. And never stop learning – an authentic leader knows there’s always something to improve on!