1 Risky Phrase Authentic Leaders Better Be Able To Back Up

How important do you think it is for a leader to genuinely embody the leadership qualities they claim to have? Most would agree, it’s critical for leaders to “walk their talk.” Let’s explore how to overcome the difference between a leader’s perception and their followers’ realities.

I’ll start with a story that is a powerful example of the importance of authentic leadership, the deep influence leaders can have, and one risky phrase authentic leaders better be able to stand behind.

The Power to Shape Organizational Culture

Experience has taught me that being a great leader is less about a leader’s personal perceptions of their abilities, and far more about how those being led perceive those abilities. It’s about authenticity and connecting with people on a deeper level, and the profound impact a leader’s words and actions can have on an organization’s culture.

In a leadership development session, I once told a story about a CEO whose offhand, audible comment dramatically affected the atmosphere in the room, and no doubt negatively impacted the organization’s culture.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah… I do ALL those things,” he said, loud and proud.

That’s a risky phrase for any leader to think… much less openly say. When he claimed to embody ALL the qualities we were discussing, a palpable wave of disbelief, discomfort, and disconnect swept through the room.

As leaders, it’s crucial to understand the immense power our words have in shaping organizational culture. While confidence and conviction are important, humility and openness to learn from others are equally essential. That CEO’s remark and his inaction backing it up created a very real divide. Authentic leaders are ever mindful about how “walking the talk” affects others.

Authentic Leaders Make Real Connections

A particularly telling moment came a few minutes later when I interacted with one of the CEO’s young employees. The employee offered a starkly different view of the CEO’s leadership from the one his leader espoused. Not merely expressing frustration with the boss’s lack of awareness, he exuded a loss of respect and trust as well. This brief exchange highlighted a significant gap between the CEO’s perception and his follower’s reality. And it reinforced my belief that authentic leadership involves earnestly seeking to understand and value our followers’ perspectives. By doing so, leaders can begin to cultivate an environment of trust and mutual respect.

The Value of Observation

Leadership extends beyond decision-making and strategy; it’s about grasping the undercurrents within our teams. The ability to notice the subtleties in people’s interactions and emotions is a trait of a truly great leader — something this CEO could have benefited from. By understanding and empathizing with employees, leaders can address issues more effectively, build trust, and ensure that everyone feels valued and heard.

Authentic Leaders Need Self-Awareness

My experiences have highlighted the critical need for self-awareness in leadership. The CEO’s unintended impact on the leadership activity showed me how crucial it is for our self-perception to align with others’ impressions. As authentic leaders, we must continually assess our behavior and its effects on our surroundings. Staying sensitive to the nuances of our interactions helps us bridge any gaps between our intentions and how we’re perceived.

To embody authentic leadership, we need to develop a strong sense of self-awareness, humility, and empathy. Authenticity isn’t about projecting a flawless image; it’s about embracing our vulnerabilities and imperfections while striving to motivate and inspire. Leadership development should focus on fostering these qualities, equipping leaders to build positive, open cultures.

The story I shared [watch it here] is a vivid reminder of the significant impact we have as leaders on organizational dynamics. Authentic leadership, characterized by self-awareness, empathy, and genuine connections, is fundamental to fostering a thriving, cohesive workplace. By committing to continuous learning and growth, acknowledging the influence of our words and actions, and prioritizing the perspectives of our teams, we can become a more authentic leader who backs up our talk with our walk.

For more helpful leadership ideas, check out our other blog posts!

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What Do You Think?

To not ask for your insights and stories on this issue would be completely missing the boat on my part. So I’d love to hear your take. What’s been your experience?

How do you think leaders can become more aware of how their words and actions are perceived by their followers?

In your leadership experience, what have you done to ensure you are building more authentic, trusting relationships with those you lead?

Thanks for sharing!

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Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE, Founder & Chair, Van Hooser Leadership. A seasoned leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author, Phillip Van Hooser is passionate about developing intentional leaders who can effectively engage and empower their employees to deliver powerful results. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn.


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