Embracing what’s unique to you

I am an avid reader of business books, particularly about leadership. I’ve read many inspiring stories and received some great guidance. However, the best articles I’ve read say that embracing what’s unique to us, in terms of our personalities, passions and experiences is the key to success on authentic leadership. Why does authentic leadership matter? Well research shows that it is the strongest predictor of employee job satisfaction, commitment and happiness. There is a common view that the 6 areas listed below are among the key ones to focus on. However, it’s sometimes hard to know how to improve our leadership in these areas. I’ve set out some learnings from my experience to date.

Becoming more self-aware & taking feedback

Self-awareness is critical since it’s impossible to demonstrate authenticity as a leader if you are unsure who you are or what you stand for in the first place. I like to pride myself on being relatively self-aware and to know what’s going on for me. However, the key part of being self-aware is understanding our impact on other people. This is because leadership is ultimately about the impact we have on others, which directly affects the results they deliver. Earlier on in my career, I was arrogant enough to think that I could read all of this too!

I remember my boss sending me on a leadership course and prior to the course, I chose a number of colleagues to give me 360 feedback. It was amazing what a commonality of views there was. For example, I was told I needed to be much bolder in telling people what I really think – Interesting for a person whose family avoided personal conflict and who didn’t recognise at that point what others now needed from me!

I learned that the smartest way to becoming more self-aware was to ask people for regular feedback and to be really open to receiving it, because the truth is good for you but it sometimes hurts when receiving it!

Connecting with others

As leaders, we all recognise that we are much more successful if we connect with people rather than having transactional relationships, whether it is chatting to an employee or talking to the whole company. Other people are very good at spotting incongruence, when our words, actions and underlying motives don’t align.

Everyone who knows me realises I love talking to people! However, I’ve always been shy underneath, and I find it hard to meet people for the first time. In the past 2 years, embarking on a portfolio career, I’ve been to lots to briefing and networking events, and found many of them hard, particularly in the beginning. I was meeting inspiring, engaging people, but inside, my internal soundtrack was that they had roles (and of course I didn’t) and they were much more confident than I was. I took some personal coaching on positioning myself and being successful in my portfolio career. Unsurprisingly, this focused on me, my personality, strengths and USP’s. I’m still working on this but the breakthrough came when I turned up as myself, and didn’t try to sell myself or anything else!

Doing the right thing

Every leader needs to know when to put the needs of the business and its customers ahead of themselves and/or their team. Part of my make-up is about integrity and doing what I believe is the right thing. This includes being honest with others. This is sometimes really hard to apply in practice in business. For example, I’ve been in situations where I’ve inherited someone or recruited someone who’s not performing in their job or more often, where the role needed to change. This has sometimes led me to conclude that they need to leave the company. How do I balance the fact that I’m a people person with doing the right thing by the business?

One of my bosses offered me the great advice “Think clinically, act humanely”. I’ve therefore held myself to account to make the right business decision and sometimes that’s been agonising. I’ve then tried to treat people in the way I would want to be treated and had the open, honest discussion with them. In most cases, they knew it wasn’t working too. I’ve then tried to announce any changes and support them in a way that worked for them. I’ve carried on talking to most people throughout the process and in many cases, we have remained in touch afterwards too.

Developing a support team

Very few leaders succeed on their own. Everyone needs a team of people who can provide honest feedback and balanced or opposing perspectives, particularly in the fast-paced world we live in, with competing and changing priorities. I am lucky in that over the years, I’ve built a network of authentic people that I can speak to. Critically, I know that they have my best interests at heart and that’s why I chose them. Equally, I also know that they will tell me what I need to hear, whether I like it or not. Of course, I’ve told them this is what I want and I always try to listen and hear what they’re saying even when I’m embattled and up against it!

Living life in balance

People who demonstrate authentic leadership are constantly working to maintain balance in order to stay grounded. Otherwise, the risk is that authenticity isn’t sustainable. I have found this to be a real challenge. I’ve generally loved the jobs I’ve done, well at least most of the time! I care about what I do, I want to do my best and I always want to be better. I can therefore veer into being a workaholic! However, this doesn’t make me a good leader, husband, father and friend. At the moment, I have a good balance in my life between work (which I still love), exercise and mental wellbeing, family and friends, and I still have to check myself on it regularly. When I can find this balance everyone, including me, benefits.

Inspiring those around you

Authentic leadership is all about creating a culture of trust and loyalty. Team members are then inspired to deliver outcomes for the business and to confront challenges. I love learning new things and developing as a person. One of the ways I do this is via other people and watching what they do. I am drawn to people who inspire me. Normally, this is about them being both authentic and also having an energy, creativity and passion for what they do. One of the things I believe strongly is that in turn, I should care for and inspire others too. I have learned that I do this successfully when I make time for them and genuinely listen to them. This is something I will always need to focus on because when I become too busy and pre-occupied, it suffers.

What about you?

• What are the most important things about your authentic leadership?
• What lessons do you have to have to share with others?

Ed Jones is the former CFO at Carnival UK, and was a key player in the management team that grew the P&O Cruises and Cunard business. You can find out more about Ed on his Advisor page here, or connect with him on LinkedIn here.