A CEO's authentic leadership in action
“It’s my fault and I’ve got to own it. I waited too long to deal with the issue, and my delay created tremendous pain and dysfunction in the organization.”
Eric, the CEO of a medical device company, was describing the impact of a hiring decision he’d made some years ago and now regretted.
He’d brought in an individual to lead the customer service team who, on paper, looked like an outstanding candidate. Sam had two degrees from an Ivy League school, 10 years of relevant experience at one of the company’s biggest competitors and was willing to move from California to Minnesota where the service team was located. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
That was, until Eric began hearing from employees that Sam was overbearing with his staff, arrogant in demeanor and resistant to any feedback or input, especially when it contradicted the direction he wanted to take. By the time Eric discovered what was happening, two valuable members of the service team had resigned, and others were considering following suit.
“I thought I could work with him and turn things around,” said Eric, “but there was never any sustained improvement.” After 18 tumultuous months, Eric came to the conclusion that the situation was hopeless. He fired Sam and then began the long process of rebuilding the services team. Helping the remaining employees recover from the wounds left by Sam’s poor leadership was no small feat.
As I listened to Eric describe what had transpired, I wondered how his leadership capabilities had evolved since the debacle with Sam. It was apparent as the conversation continued that Eric had blossomed into an authentic leader in subsequent years, having mastered many of the skills held by individuals in this elite group. Most significantly, he had become profoundly self-aware, which informed how he now understood his strengths and vulnerabilities, how he interfaced with his team and the larger organization, and how he managed information and feedback.
Authentic leaders aren’t just born, they’re shaped by their experiences, including their successes, but especially their mistakes. Eric had turned those lessons into a powerful formula for leading an organization and creating a positive culture for all of his staff. He now understands that:
- Authentic leaders recognize and acknowledge their mistakes and appreciate the impact of those mistakes. They take ownership of their failures without seeking to shift blame. Above all, they take action to remedy their mistakes. Eric recognized Sam’s shortcomings but owned how his decision to keep Sam in the role for as long as he did had contributed to team dysfunction.
- Such leaders invite and reward honest feedback. They actively seek out data and then act on it. Eric learned that getting out of his office and walking around made a difference in how much he learned about how employees were feeling about the work environment and how fast he became aware of potential problems. It was more revealing than any employee survey the organization had conducted and often validated the results from such pulse checks.
- Top leaders are able to make tough people decisions, but they don’t take their effects lightly. They consider the ramifications of the decision on the rest of the organization, as well as the individual involved. Even when terminations are justifiable, these leaders struggle with the pain the decision will evoke. It’s never an easy or casual action, which is wasn’t for Eric as he agonized over his decision about Sam. Ultimately, he took the action that was best for the company.
- Authentic leaders are intensely interested in understanding the perspectives of others, including people with life experiences that are different from their own. They not only value diversity across all dimensions of difference, they actively invite diverse people into the organization and create an environment in which they can thrive. Eric is actively committed to developing and promoting women and minorities, who now constitute half of his leadership team.
- These powerful leaders create a sense of belonging on the team, which is one of the most transformational levers for creating a positive work culture. They take onboarding, mentoring and sponsoring employees seriously. And, they don’t forget that employees have a life and loved ones outside of work, so they create opportunities to include families in company events. Eric’s employees cite such events as factors that contribute to the high levels of “team affiliation” on company surveys.
- Authentic leaders are trust builders. They understand that trust is a valuable currency that, once breached, is forever lost. If others share information that is personal or sensitive, there is no doubt that such leaders will maintain confidentiality. Eric takes time to get to know his people. He spends hours in conversation with them, discussing their work, asking about their career aspirations and passions, and sharing personal stories. This investment builds trust.
- Finally, the best leaders believe in the teams they’ve created. They have confidence that members of the organization can be counted on to deliver results and empower them to seize opportunities to innovate. “I know I’ve built an amazing team,” said Eric. “My job now is to open the gate, let them run, and be there when they need support. What I know for sure is that every person in this company, from the most junior to the most senior, is critical to our success.”
Perhaps this is the week to examine your own leadership, including the successes and failures you’ve experienced over the last few years. What have you learned? How has it changed you? What can you do to become a more authentic leader?
It’s an exercise from which your team and business will benefit.
Alaina Love is CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting and co-author of “The Purpose Linked Organization: How Passionate Leaders Inspire Winning Teams and Great Results” (McGraw-Hill). She is a recovering HR executive, a global speaker and leadership expert, and passionate about everything having to do with, well … passion. Her passion archetypes are Builder, Transformer and Healer. You can learn more about how to grow leaders, build passionate teams and leverage passion to create great customer outcomes here.
When she’s not working with her Fortune 500 client base, Love is busy writing her next book, “Passionality, The Art and Science of Finding Your Passion and Living Your Bliss,” which explores the alignment of personality, purpose and passion, and the science of how it contributes to our well being. Follow Love on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or her blog.