Over the past few years, authentic leadership has gained increased attention. In a nutshell, authentic leadership is a leadership style in which leaders approach relationships with colleagues in a straightforward and honest manner. Authentic leaders are self-aware – they know their own strengths, limitations and values. They are transparent and have a strong moral compass.
Studies have shown that employees are hungry for authentic leadership. According to a Harvard Business Review study, 75% of employees want to experience more authenticity at work.
We recently spoke with Ralph Loura, CTO at Rodan + Fields and an HMG Strategy 2017 Transformational CIO Award winner for his insights on authentic leadership and lessons he has learned throughout his distinguished career.
HMG: There’s a lot of talk in executive circles about the importance of demonstrating authentic leadership to employees. Can you share how you personally go about exhibiting authentic leadership to your direct reports and other employees?
Ralph Loura: Authenticity is binary. You are either authentic, and employees feel they can trust you, or you are not - even once, even on the small things - and then employees can’t trust you.
I am very candid and transparent with my team. No questions are off limits and everyone gets a voice. I don’t speak in code, or so-called management-speak.
We work hard at authenticity. For instance, we use anonymous survey tools to allow employees to ask tough questions, and then we answer them publicly. Sometimes these can be uncomfortable questions, but I’d much rather have them discussed in the open.
What are some of the lessons you’ve picked up from other leaders you’ve worked with who have displayed elements of authentic leadership?
RL: A former mentor of mine was fond of the adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
This manifests in a myriad of ways; from supporting a diverse workplace allowing all employees to bring their whole selves to the office, to celebrating personal and professional milestones with the team, or dispatching a hand-written note in real time when a team member does something of impact.
One thing that is meaningful is to simply show up. When teams stay late in the office, for example, it’s important for me as a leader to show up by bringing coffee or ordering pizza as a visible sign of support and solidarity.
There is an old trope in the tech space, “there are two kinds of programs, business successes and tech failures,” which can hit home for many folks who have spent any time in a tech leadership role. This doesn’t need to be the case. The leaders I respect the most are quick to distribute praise and share the spotlight and equally quick to take responsibility and absorb feedback when things don’t go as well.
A key element of authentic leadership is by having honest relationships with people. Can you point to how you try to be transparent with people? Are there any recent examples that come to mind?
RL: A phrase a mentor used that I resonated with and have adopted is, “as a leader, my job is not to make you happy, it is to make you better.” If I constantly soft-pedal feedback and acquiesce to individual requests and preferences, I do the employees I manage a disservice. The sooner you provide candid and objective assessments and feedback, the sooner others can internalize that feedback and course correct.
I recently was faced with a situation where I had to share some difficult feedback. When faced with situations like this, it is important to me as a leader to be as transparent and specific as possible. I ask myself, “what would I want to know if the role was reversed?” This approach of flipping the role has served me well in my career.
Another characteristic of authentic leadership is a willingness to admit mistakes when they occur since this in effect gives other people permission to admit when they’ve made mistakes. Are there any examples of this in your own experiences that you can point to?
RL: We recently had some misalignment on my team that became apparent to the whole organization. I had rationalized it as “healthy tension” that keeps things in balance, but I was wrong.
Once the situation was resolved, I stood up in front of an all hands meeting and took ownership. I told them that I had not been active enough in managing this rift and that I let it go on for far too long. Addressing this head on, admitting my own failure to act in a timely fashion and discussing it openly allowed us to make steps to heal the rift more quickly. It created an environment where people on either side of the situation could set aside past misunderstandings and work more closely and effectively together.
How do you convey authentic leadership when coaching or mentoring people?
: As humans, we all innately want to make others around us comfortable and happy, but like the motivational poster says, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”
At the end of it all, as a leader you need to care enough about your people to provide candid and accurate feedback, push them beyond their comfort zone and be there to support and motivate them when they falter. Having the opportunity to see people embrace this, grow and achieve what they never knew they could is part of what makes leadership so rewarding.