Five valuable habits inspirational leaders should develop

By Jeremy Campbell, above, CEO of performance improvement and technology business Black Isle Group

In recent months, several people have called with an intriguing dilemma, “We need our leaders to be more inspiring. Can you help?”  The inquiries have come from a variety of SME businesses – the newly appointed CEO of a fast growth start-up; the founder owner of an established family business; and the Chief Executive of a charity facing existential financial challenges.

They may work in different worlds, but they have much in common. They are all facing an urgent need to deliver major transformation. They’ve never experienced so much change at such an astonishing pace. The stakes are high. The economic headwinds are worrying. If they are to meet these challenges successfully, they all believe they need to change the way their people lead. Cardboard cut-out leaders just don’t cut it anymore. Command and control were killed by COVID. Now they need their leaders to trust and inspire. It’s a complex quandary. There is no easy fix. What should they do?

How do leaders become truly authentic? 

First, let’s consider what authentic leadership looks like. It is a style which is especially personal. Remember, style is a choice. The road to authentic leadership begins by you defining who you are. Consider your three personas.The public you – how you show up at work; the private you – how you show up to your nearest and dearest; and the personal you – who you are inside when you are alone? If these are poorly aligned, you might struggle with authentic leadership. The knack is to bring these three versions of yourself as closely together as possible. For some, this may be a fundamental shift.

Next ask yourself, “Would I follow myself? Would I trust myself? Would I inspire myself?” This deep introspection will begin to shape the way ahead. As any coach knows, self-awareness is the first step in any self-improvement.

To be an authentic leader you must display certain traits consistently every day. The big `five’ are:

  1. Walking the talk
  2. Vulnerability
  3. Empathy
  4. Connecting
  5. Inspiring

The starting point is 100% walking the talk. You must live by WYSIWYG –what you see is what you get. Your words must match your actions. Your actions must match your words. When they don’t, that’s hypocrisy. There’s no road back from there.

Vulnerability is the second key to authentic leadership, underpinned by openness and transparency. Tell people what you don’t know. Admit you’re not the smartest in the room.  Delegate, empower and listen to the experts. Authentic leaders speak last. Apologise for mistakes. Open the books and share the plans. Be as transparent as possible.

The third trait is empathy. Authentic leaders genuinely care and show they care. They demonstrate compassion. They make the smallest of gestures which have the greatest of impact. They know about their people. They know about their people’s families and the hobbies that stir their passions. They share in their triumphs and their disappointments.

Fourth up is connection. Whether it’s a first date or a new client or a comedian who you’ve never heard before, initially a barrier stands firmly between us and them. Authentic leaders need to knock that barrier down and make connection. Comedians talk about winning the opening minute. If they knock the barrier down in the first 60 seconds and connect with their audience, they are onto a winner. If they don’t it’s going to be a long night with not a lot of laughs. The authentic leader connects. They do this by finding common ground quickly. They find shared beliefs, common experiences, connections from the past.  They involve people. They don’t transmit. They show shared understanding.  They display sympathy. They give praise and recognition. They repeatedly find a way to connect with the people they lead in a genuine and impactful way.

Finally, you need to be truly inspiring. Please note, inspiring and charismatic are not the same thing. Introverts will be pleased to learn that. To be inspiring, you need to practise the first four traits every day in life but add a fifth piece of magic dust on top. We could write a whole book on this. But let’s focus on just one area for now. Inspiring leaders tell inspiring stories. They dump the corporate bull and speak from the heart. Their stories are peppered with striking metaphors which people remember in a way that they won’t remember the cold company speak of OKRs, KPIs, business plans and strategy documents. To be inspiring you need to be an inspiring communicator.

How Authentic Leaders Communicate

At Black Isle Group we have specialised for many years in helping leaders become better presenters and more confident public speakers. In recent times, this has developed from the honourable task of helping people pitch to clients, address their all-staff meetings, and speak at industry conferences. Now we’ve realised that there is so much more to this area of leadership. You can’t be an inspiring, authentic leader unless you can communicate in an inspiring and authentic way. It’s just not possible. We are used to helping leaders achieve clarity, brevity, and impact. Now, to meet this growing need to help people become more authentic we have developed that into “The Seven Secrets of Inspiring Leaders.” Through this work we help leaders find the power to communicate in an inspiring and effective way.

So many leaders find this skill one of the most difficult of all. It petrifies many. Others struggle to be memorable and leave their people with a blank canvas. The answer lies in helping leaders focus on the process, rather than the outcome. That’s why breaking the art of inspiring speaking into seven areas is so successful. Imagine a championship golfer or an international tennis star in the heat of the moment. They fall back on a carefully rehearsed process breaking their swing down into small parts rehearsed to perfection. That too is the foundation on which to build the communication skills of the authentic leader.

When it comes to authentic leadership it is not something we can switch off and on. It is a mindset and behaviors which we need to live 100% of the time. It is summed up by the adage, successful people consistently do what others only occasionally do. That’s the difference between true authentic leaders and the rest.

Jeremy Campbell is the CEO of performance improvement and technology business Black Isle Group; an expert on behavioural science; and an executive coach