In the corporate world, I often hear people say things like: There’s no time for my team to be spending on soft skills. We have real work to do. We’ve got numbers to achieve. This is just a waste of time; this is fluff. This is a “nice to have,” but we’ve got a business to run.

Hmm. Okay… But if we don’t take the time to connect with each other as human beings, our gains are superficial. No amount of corporate structure, methodology, how-to-be-successful books or cookie-cutter approach will assure your success.

I have found what can, however: Embracing our authentic selves. Using the art of storytelling. Practicing empathy. These are traits that help leaders build the high-performance culture we want and need in our teams today. 

Last year on my podcast, I interviewed Don Akery, President of electronics distributor TTI, Inc. He left us with some simple but poignant wisdom: It’s okay to be nice.

That was just one more piece of evidence proving what I’ve thought for a while now: The command-and-control leadership model is dead.

Of course, it still exists. You can find it operating (though not well) in plenty of organizations. But it’s not the leadership model of the future. We won’t be able to attract the best talent from Gen Z if we issue dictates from an ivory tower.

Don was just one of my guests who talked about the power of sharing more of oneself in the workplace. We shouldn’t be afraid that somebody will somehow use that information against us. It simply won’t happen when we’re comfortable in our own skin and our values are aligned.

I haven’t always felt this way, however. It has been a journey. Here are a few signposts I’ve found along the way.

Story time at the Chamber of Commerce

Around 2016, I began to incubate the idea of authentic leadership before I even knew what it was.

I was getting ready for a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce in Gadsden, Alabama. They were interested in my career path: how a little farm girl from the Welsh hills found herself in Detroit as one of the top 100 leading women in the automotive industry; what’s it like to lead a global supply chain group for a tier-one auto company.

As I prepared my PowerPoint, I felt compelled to pepper my personal stories and photos with business-oriented slides, like insights from thought leaders on building high-achieving teams. I thought the presentation should have some sort of corporate feel to it. I still felt that I somehow had to fit that mold, even though it didn’t resonate with me.

When I gave the talk, I noticed that my personal anecdotes really resonated with the audience. I could see the energy change in the room. A few moments even brought them to their feet, applauding. But when I talked through those corporate slides, it didn’t resonate with the audience at all.

I don’t know whether it was because they could sense that I wasn’t comfortable with that content. Upon reflection, I realized that since the beginning of time, we humans relate to each other through storytelling. The further you stray from a narrative, the less effective your communication. That’s because communication is about connection.

When I realized the simple power of sharing my own story, something clicked. I was on my way to defining authentic leadership.

To dream, perchance to own a brand

I titled that presentation “Dream It, Brand It, Own It” because my story fell into three parts –– not sequentially, but structurally. And I continue to use this framework in my coaching business, as I train others to nurture their own authentic leadership styles. They’re the main areas of focus you should work on to lead yourself and lead others. Here’s a quick taste:

Dream it

Take the time to dream, to think not just big but wildly. It’s how you develop a bold vision for yourself in spite of anyone who tells you that you can’t do, or be, whatever you desire.

Before you can do that thing, whatever it is, you must break through the expectations and barriers that exist in your own head.

Brand it

What is your personal brand? You don’t need a logo or a slogan (although you just might make them), but a personal brand is really defined by how you show up in both your professional life and your personal life: your habits and behaviors, your values, your lifestyle.

Own it

This is where the rubber meets the road: the execution of your dream and your brand. How do you make it all happen? And perhaps most importantly, how do you hold yourself accountable? That’s where we often falter. And that’s where we need support.

My silver lining playbook

I used to feel it was necessary for businesspeople to draw a strict line between their personal and professional lives.

Even now, I look in my closet and I see two very different wardrobes: one for my working persona and one for my personal life. But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. We all only live one life.

In 2020, I made a significant change that might seem superficial but was revolutionary. After decades of wearing my hair in a sharply angled, dark brunette bob, I got a short, spiky cut and truly embraced its natural color.

I wanted to get away from spending hours a month in a hair salon and the money that went along with it. And I just wanted to be me. I was initially scared to take the leap, but it turned out my hair is more silver than gray. I’ve truly embraced the aging process, and the cut itself was incredibly empowering.

My mother used to say I hid behind my haircut, and I never really understood what she meant. But I think I do now. It was part of the corporate mask I wore when I thought being an executive meant looking and acting a certain way.

Now, I look more like myself than ever.

Naturally, my glow-up called for some new headshots. My favorite photographer, Brad Zieglar, first photographed me when I was named to the 100 Leading Women in the North American Automotive Industry list in 2015. During that photoshoot, he said to me: Well, we’ve done the professional shots. Now let’s take some shots of you the way you really are.

I didn’t really understand that, either. But in that very first session, Brad had a sense that I wasn’t quite my 100% authentic self. Over the years, he has seen me evolve. When we did our most recent shoot, I’ve never felt so comfortable in front of the camera, and he knew it. We barely even had to talk about it because it was so obvious. I’ve never felt so comfortable in my own skin.

It was a magical moment. I felt like I had stepped into the light, and it changed everything. I’ve truly embraced my own authenticity. I’ve made significant strides on my personal leadership journey and my quest for gravitas.

The more comfortable you are in your own skin and your values are aligned, the more you can connect with people on a very real and personal level. And you’ll become a stronger leader who can inspire teams to perform at the highest levels.

My wish for you is for you to discover your own gravitas –– for you to step into your light and embrace all that is truly, wonderfully, authentically 100% you.

Jan Griffiths is the president and founder of Gravitas Detroit, which provides workshops, speeches, and coaching to accelerate high-performance teams and develop leaders. A veteran executive in the automotive industry, Jan previously served as chief procurement officer for a $3 billion, a tier-one global automotive supplier. She hosts the Finding Gravitas podcast.