It was just hours before we kicked off our first-ever leadership event. Approximately 100 people were driving or flying in for two and a half days of inspiring goodness.
This pre-meeting was all about making sure I was prepared and ready with my opening and closing speeches. I admit, I had a bit of a reputation for “winging things.”
One of the women from the consulting team asked if I was planning to show the video they suggested. You might have seen it; it’s called “First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.” For some reason, this video has gone viral.
And look, I get it. There is some fun metaphorical stuff going on. The basic premise is that everyone is at a concert and no one is dancing. And then this one crazy guy starts dancing. And then the first follower. They overlay all kinds of leadership lessons while you painfully watch the shirtless “leader” dance with everyone.
When I saw the video that they sent me several weeks earlier, I thought: Great, I will use this as inspiration. I won’t show the video — I will be the video.
As I explained to everyone that I was just going to dance myself, they looked at me with blank stares.
I asked, “Are you worried about me dancing because: a. I’ll ruin the event, or b. I’ll make a fool of myself?”
All agreed it wasn’t “a.”
I said, “Great, then I’m dancing.”
And, let me tell you, it was an incredible ending to our event. I had the entire room dancing in about five seconds. No video or speech could have achieved the incredible energy we collectively left the room with.
Some might call this “authentic leadership.” In fact, those are words people have used to describe me several times.
Authentic leadership is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. It is one of the most simple and powerful ways to make massive progress against two of the most pervasive corporate problems — gender inequality and employee disengagement.
Here’s the problem: Defining authenticity is virtually impossible. Because authenticity is inherently personal, it’s nearly impossible to nail it down.
But you know what is easy? You know it when you don’t see it. Here are five signs that you’re not an authentic leader.
1. You spend too much time talking about how busy you are
I understand that you have way too many meetings and a lot of people to answer to. But you likely also have more help than most of your people. Plus, every single human being is busy these days.
One of the most common things that people would say to me when they came into my office?
“I know you’re so busy, so thank you for … ” My reply: “I’m just as busy as you are.”
Stop wearing your busyness as a badge. Or maybe a mask. People will still respect you even if they don’t think you’re always “back to back” or wanted in three places at once. They will respect you more if you’re able to stay calm when faced with unexpected interruptions.
2. You send fancy communications or ‘on behalf of’ emails
Many of the “management” communications that go out are so fake. They use big, fancy words. They are often written by someone other than the leader. And don’t even get me started on the “on behalf of” emails.
The reality: People don’t read them.
They smell inauthenticity a mile away. They don’t want to read fancy words. They just want to hear from you like a human.
A former leader of mine, a prominent executive, sent out communications often — well, her communications department did. Then one day she sent out an email. No fancy header, no big words, and a note that was straight from her heart.
This was the first email of hers that I actually read top to bottom. And I responded to her as well. Before I never would have thought to reply to one of her fancy communications — where would it even go?
When I was CEO, I resolved to write my own communications. Sure, I had help every once in a while. But I can assure you that my team knew my “voice” — and knew when it was me and when it wasn’t. I stood my ground on this principle at a time when the entire leadership team at our company had to send out organizational communications. I was the only one that sent my own, all in my own words.
Take a look at your emails and formal communications today. Do they inspire you? Do they tell a real story? Do they talk in a way that a fourth grader would understand? If not, experiment with changing them up. Tell your team a story. Use humor. Use humility. Use whatever is authentically you to communicate to your team and to others.
3. You’re a different person in the boardroom than the breakroom
One of my favorite people in the world is Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, the literary agent behind many famous authors and public figures.
I once heard her interviewed on the goop podcast. She said that she only represents people that are the same in every room. Hallelujah sister!
You’ve seen it before. A leader is presenting at a big meeting. They’re smiling, laughing, engaging. You think, I really dig them. And then you see them a little later in the lobby on a phone call or interacting with the hotel staff and they’re a totally different person.
I always say that I can sniff out inauthenticity from a mile away. And a big part of that is simply observing how someone acts in different settings. If you act all nice-nice in the big setting, but then turn around and berate the hotel front desk worker for a minor issue, you’re not an authentic leader.
Dig deep to understand and aspire to be a certain kind of leader. And then be that leader … everywhere. Treat every employee like they are your boss. Practice your leadership skills not just at work, but at home, too. Be the same authentic person everywhere.
4. You do more talking than listening
Like many people, I thought early in my career that to prove that you were smart you had to have a lot of great ideas — and talk about them constantly.
How many times have you been in a meeting and the most senior person dominates the floor. When they have a point, everyone stops. When they don’t, they’re probably on their phone or computer.
I learned about 20 years into my leadership journey that as leaders — especially authentic ones — your job isn’t to know all the answers. Your job is to ask the right questions.
I love Kevin Hancock’s story and TEDx Talk. He was diagnosed with a rare speech disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, which led to a leadership awakening. When he was faced with the limited ability to speak, he learned the power of listening and asking questions.
Don’t wait to lose your voice to start listening more and talking less. Ask questions. And not questions that make you look smart — questions that make the collective group smarter. Write down your thoughts and ideas on a sticky note or notebook so you can be patient, and wait to let others speak first. You’ll be amazed at how smart other people are.
5. You preach work-life balance but then don’t have it yourself
Don’t be a hypocrite — I used to be massively guilty of this one.
Here’s why hypocrisy is so damaging: People don’t follow your words — they follow your actions.
You likely have a boss, too. How do you feel when they go on vacation but continue to check in and send emails? First, you probably feel sorry for them. Then you might feel confused. And certainly when you take your vacation, you feel like you have to do the same.
Stop talking about work-life balance. Demonstrate it. It’s actually quite selfish if you don’t. When I used to check and send emails on my vacation, it was primarily serving one purpose — me. I didn’t want to have to deal with coming back to mounds of emails when I got back.
And then I realized the damage it had on my team. So I pulled way back on that.
One of the most impactful things I ever did in my time as CEO was when we had a client conference a few hours away. The last day of the conference was my daughter’s 10th birthday. At first I thought, That sucks that I have to miss her birthday. But then I realized I didn’t.
I drove back home that afternoon and picked her up. She came to dinner and to the hotel with us. I said a boatload of inspirational stuff at that conference. And it was all trumped by bringing my daughter to the event. So many people told me how much that impacted them; it showed them that they could find creative ways to balance and to not compromise everything else for work.
It wasn’t what I said that inspired them. It was what I did.