Pillars of Leadership: 5 Traits of Authentic Leaders

It’s difficult to lead well, especially in a fast-paced environment. Leading change in a company in distress means many things need to happen quickly. Leaders often put culture on the back burner as a “nice to have.” As a serial CEO, I’ve led six companies through transformational change over more than 20 years. I’ve found that authentic leaders that follow the pillars of leadership—and the culture that results from leadership—is a multiplier of productivity and a driver of success.

The fast-paced, dynamic world of rapid change that used to be confined to distressed organizations is now everyone’s world. Disruption, new generations of employees and hyper-connection is forcing the leadership paradigm to shift. The industrial revolution model of command and control leadership is no longer effective.

To enable an organization to thrive, leaders have to embrace an authentic leadership style. It promotes an engaged and innovative environment, one able to match the pace of change we now face. Here are my five pillars of authentic leadership:

1. Collaboration is a pillar of leadership.

You can’t do it yourself. Everything is moving too fast to have one smart person making all of the calls. Organizations need to be inherently agile with collaboration and communication.

Transparency builds trust. If you connect to your team and show genuine interest in their participation and welfare, they are more likely to join you in your quest. The reason is simple: People support what they help create.

Lao Tzu wrote:

The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised. 
Next comes the one who is feared. 
The worst one is the leader that is despised. 

If you don’t trust the people, 
they will become untrustworthy. 

The best leaders value their words, and use them sparingly. 
When she has accomplished her task, 
the people say, “Amazing: 
we did it, all by ourselves!” 

That, to me, is the true measure of effective collaboration.

2. An authentic leader has vision.

Philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “The leader has to be practical and a realist, yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist.” Therein lies the balance. Vision and strategy can be built collaboratively, and authentic leaders can help define that reality. But the leader must also live the paradox of championing the future while engaging in the purposeful motivation and practical realities of the present.

3. Empathy is a pillar of leadership.

We are all flawed human beings; we all have our bad days. Leaders who recognize that they are leading normal people and not just managing for an outcome will engender a huge amount of loyalty, engagement and productivity. Treating others as we would like to be treated is a principal that’s persisted in some form for over 2,600 years. If you can create a culture of respect and dignity, a culture of trust rather than fear, your organization will accomplish great things.

We might all have different roles, but we all have equal value and should be honored and treated accordingly.

4. Authentic leaders are grounded.

Truly authentic leaders have to be centered and balanced if they are to be effective and resilient. They are able to take a broader perspective, often putting the company and its people ahead of their own desires.

We are each composed of body, soul and spirit. And we need to be mindful to care for ourselves so we can effectively serve others. Each leader will need to tend to their own foundational well-being in order to be sustainable in the cauldron of the modern workplace. The simple personal disciplines of life are even more important when you lead others.

5. Ethics are a pillar of leadership.

If you don’t have integrity, you have nothing. You can’t buy it. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are not a moral and ethical person, you really have nothing.” Investor and philanthropist Henry Kravis’ words sound a bit harsh and even judgmental, yet we know them to be true.

Dispassionately choosing your moral framework sounds like an odd business success driver, but making a stand early might save you and others from disaster. Integrity is often inconvenient, yet it is a more sustainable and ultimately more fulfilling path. Often, it’s as simple as doing what you say you will do.

These seemingly soft characteristics are at the core of what I have found to be successful in multiple complex turnaround situations. The pace of change today means all organizations have to ensure they are agile to survive and thrive in the digital era.

This article was published in July 2017 and has been updated. Photo by Inside Creative House/Shutterstock

Mark Bilton is an international award-winning strategist, CEO mentor and managing director of Thought Patrol. He has more than 20 years of CEO experience, leading six companies through transformational change. Mark is on a mission to “reframe leadership and humanize the workplace.” He is a member of YPO, the premier chief executive leadership organization in the world.

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