What Makes Authentic, Innovative, And Caring Leaders?
I could have called this article “what makes great leaders”, but I wanted to be more specific about it because I have a specific kind of leader in mind when I think about leadership, and a specific kind of leader I believe we need more of in today’s world of business and beyond.
In my previous article Redefining Leadership, I talked about how I believe leadership is reflected in the leader's willingness and commitment to take their organisation, and the people who are part of it, out of the comfort zone, where they can continuously progress, innovate, and grow together. This is definitely different from the top-down and hierarchical leadership model we've seen in workplaces for many decades, and we continue to see in more old fashioned companies.
In today's world of hyperconnectivity, almost unlimited access to information, and where ideas are shared across the globe in a matter of a click, that model is becoming obsolete. Millennial employees (people born approximately between the early 1980's and the late 1990's) want very different things from their managers, compared to previous generations. They want to work for purpose driven companies, they want to make a positive impact, they want flexibility and an easy going environment, they want connection, not hierarchy, they want perks, and they want to learn and grow, not just earn a salary.
We simply cannot turn our eyes away from this new reality and, as a millennial myself, I personally think it's a good change. I believe we need more authentic, innovative and caring leaders.
The following are 11 signs, in no particular order, that for me describe these leaders:
1. They listen and ask questions
They listen to other people’s ideas and points of view because they don’t think they always know better. In fact, they seek to broaden their perspective and recognise that other people's ideas can be valuable, enriching, eye opening, and can effectively help them lead better. They also ask questions to understand before assuming and judging. By doing so, they foster better relationships, they stay objective, they don’t take things personally, and they don’t miss out on potential opportunities.
2. They have a ‘Why’ and share it with their people and customers
They have a ‘Why’ (purpose) that drives them forward, that keeps them grounded in times of challenges, and that makes their mission something that goes beyond making money and selling a service or a product. They also know that it’s when people believe what you believe that they trust you, follow you, buy from you, and don’t just work for you to get a salary at the end of the month.
3. They are curious and think outside the box
They firmly believe there’s always room for improvement, there can be another way, and that if things have always been done in a certain way it doesn’t mean it should remain so. As a result of it they are open to possibilities and learning opportunities to keep progressing and innovating.
4. They have courage
They have the courage to try (including to question themselves and face their fears) even if there’s no guarantee they are going to succeed, and they might fail along the way. They are open to trying new things and approaches, and they have the courage to let their people try as well. Additionally, and not less importantly, they don’t put themselves and their interests first, they make sure their people are safe and have the courage to take the responsibility when things go wrong.
5. They don’t pretend to be invincible or to have all the answers
They are well aware of their strengths as well as their weaknesses. They don’t think nor expect to have a solution to all problems or an answer to all questions. While they continuously work on improving, they recognise (and embrace) that they are vulnerable like all human beings, they are not (and are not expected to be) superheroes. This doesn’t make them any less good at what they do as leaders or any less as people. On the contrary, it gives them the empathy to understand others and to connect with people, it makes them eager to keep learning, seek collaboration, and work on themselves to continuously grow. Consequently, this creates growth in their organizations too.
6. They are transparent in their communication
They don’t retain knowledge and information for themselves, they are not vague in their communication, and they don’t lie to save their face. They understand that clear, constructive and consistent communication is at the base of healthy and fruitful relationships in both personal and business relationships. They make sure that people have enough context to feel involved and work more autonomously. They know poor communication, especially in times of challenges, damages trust, limits growth and doesn’t fuel innovation.
7. They have confidence not cockiness
They believe in themselves and they don't pretend to be who they are not. This doesn’t mean they are confident always and in all areas of their life, but even in times of challenges they stay grounded, and they pick themselves up quicker than if they didn't have that belief. Confidence is nurtured by competence and competence comes from continuous learning and practice with a determined and open mindset. Confident leaders (and people in general) don't need to regularly prove themselves to others or always be “the winner”, they are open to constructive feedback and see it as an opportunity to improve, they inspire and lift other people up, and they don’t need to brag (which is very different from talking positively about yourself) about how awesome they are. Confidence should not be mistaken with what is just pure and simple cockiness. That appears when there's a constant try to show the world your worth and status, it’s a need to always have the last word, it’s often a lot of talk and not so much action, and it can even translate into putting other people down to prove, once again, that you are better than everyone else. Cockiness is nothing more than insecurity masked with arrogance, and it is not a quality of a leader.
8. They hire great people, not just great talents
They hire people not only for their technical skills, their level or experience, or their knowledge, but for who they are as people too. They create a company culture where people have similar values, respect each other, collaborate, feel free to express themselves, and see their workplace as a community where everyone counts and each one contributes to growth and innovation. They nurture people's strengths more than focus on their weaknesses, they give them the support and resources to grow, they set clear expectations and don't wait for year end to see how they are doing. Moreover, when they talk about their company, they don't just talk about the product or the service, they don't just talk about themselves as leaders of the company, they proudly talk about the people they work with.
9. They inspire through action
They don’t just talk, they act because there’s no great speech that can stand if it’s not accompanied by action. They don’t ask or expect people to behave in a certain way if they are not the first ones to do so or at the very least they would do so themselves. They push for better results because they push themselves for better results, they inspire and lead people by example.
10. They create an environment of reciprocal trust
They understand that trust is at the base of human relationships and business is no exception. Trust is the willingness to open yourself to others and make others feel they can open themselves to you, it’s a commitment to try even if you might get disappointed, and it’s a process that takes time and effort. You create trust when you live true to your values, when your word is reflected in your actions, when you care about people around you and don’t leave them alone in times of difficulties, when you keep your promises to them, and when you are honest in your communication with them even when it's uncomfortable. You also create trust when you are flexible in your policies because you understand that everyone works in different ways and the person who stays at the office 10 hours doesn’t necessarily work more or better than the one who stays 8 (the same counts for the night owl who struggles to start at 9am sharp, the one who likes to work in pyjamas from the comfort of their home from time to time, and the traveler who would work extra hard in exchange for a couple of extra days of holidays).
11. They know leadership is a journey
They are on a continuous journey to improve, progress, broaden their perspective, and make their journey about others, not just themselves. They don’t think that taking a couple of days of leadership development training makes them leaders because that is only one of the many steps in their journey. They also know leadership is not a hat you put on when you enter the workplace, it is part of who you are and who you want to become, no matter where you are and what you do. Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility, not just a title.
A study from Gallup has shown that managers account for at least 70% of variance in employee engagement scores and one in two had left their job to get away from their manager. I believe we've had enough of so called leaders who always put themselves first, who think they are above others, who are driven by money only, who are insecure and don't trust the very same people they work with and who are helping them grow, who have made leadership about power, control, and keeping the status quo.
I know and trust that out there there are leaders with the qualities listed above, including those who, on their CV, don't have yet a leadership role. These are the leaders I believe we need more of today. And if you are an aspiring or young leader, I hope you look for these and similar characteristics in the leaders you look up to and get inspiration from, to become yourself an authentic, innovative, and caring leader.