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Lessons in authentic leadership

5th Jan 18 2:24 pm

And planning the year ahead

So, it’s New Year again and a favourite time for many of the entrepreneurs that I mentor to set themselves up for the year ahead by planning and goal setting. Not so much New Year’s resolutions but more about self-improvement, developing new skills or improving certain qualities. I’m often asked by entrepreneurs how to be a better leader – are there any books , courses or business schools I would recommend. Successful entrepreneurs who start off with an interesting idea or concept, and grow that idea into a successful business often suddenly find themselves responsible for the personal career development of tens or even hundreds of people – something that great idea didn’t provide much training for.

I find the one quality that is too often missed, or worse, intentionally withheld, when it comes to leadership, is authenticity. All of the development books and even the world’s best business schools cannot help with the development of leadership skills if you can’t let yourself be yourself – and I learned this the hard way!

At the beginning with New Covent Garden Soup Co. I felt, at times, like a fish out of water. I almost felt, to a certain extent, I was a fake. In the very early days, I’d sit in meetings and think, ‘Who’s responsible for this particular decision?’ To my horror, I’d realise it was me! I thought ‘I can’t make these decisions when I’m not an expert in any of these topics!’ I thought it was smart to be “suited and booted” thinking this is how the leader ‘should’ dress (although I hardly ever wore a suit before).

As a trained scientist my brain was naturally wired to behave in a certain, methodical way – with decisions made on the basis of logic, research and proof points. I quickly had to unwire this way of thinking. As an entrepreneur, you don’t have the luxury to be an expert or time to work out a lot beforehand. You need to be creative, make judgements and implement very quickly!

What’s most important is that you need to provide the vision for the direction of the business and inspire everyone that you come into contact with to buy into this vision. Pretty soon, it’s no longer just you and your idea but a whole team of people that you need more than you can possibly imagine and who need to be fully engaged with and signed up to the journey.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all that matters is your business acumen. Everything you have experienced as a person has shaped you – not just what you learned in a suit! Your personality goes a long way. If you don’t try to leverage your personality in life you can’t really be an effective leader. As a business leader, you need to be inspirational in order to secure investment; in my world, to convince retailers and consumers to list and buy your products; to convince people to come to work for you (without the big salaries!) and the many other times you need to be able to influence people in business. To do this effectively you have to be yourself. It’s true that there are many great books on leadership but reading tips from Richard Branson or Elon Musk will not make you become them.

You can’t be inspirational by trying to be someone else. Inspiration comes from a place of authenticity. Unfortunately, what often  ends up happening is  you put yourself under so much stress by constantly trying to be someone else that it dominates  your energy. There’s enough to deal with, without trying to impose another layer that’s not natural for you. If you can understand what has shaped you, this can give you confidence to guide you to make the right decisions in your professional life. Keep calm and trust yourself.

The best example I can give of authentic leadership is looking at some of the great managers of the football Premier League. Alex Ferguson spent over twenty five years getting outrageously successful results as manager of Manchester United, setting all sorts of records which will be very difficult to surpass. However, he may even admit himself he was ‘a thug from the wrong end of Glasgow’ and his approach was to manage by fear. That worked for him and his players for a quarter of a century so you might think that’s the way to be if you want to be a successful football manager. But unless you have a personality exactly like Alex Ferguson, trying to be like Alex Ferguson won’t be in any way effective. Claudio Ranieri led Leicester City to win the Premier League from nowhere – one of the most unexpected series of results in all of sporting history!  He did this with a team of individuals with which the pundits said should not be possible. He has a completely different manner from Ferguson yet also achieved phenomenal results. He did this by being the mild- mannered person he is, appealing to the players sensibilities and inspiring them to success far beyond anything the club had ever achieved before (they were almost relegated the previous season!) or which their budget suggested they were even capable of.

On the other hand, Juergen Klopp of Liverpool and Dortmund has a gregarious, back-slapping bonhomie and displays this approach to managing elite football teams. His love of playing attacking football that is attractive to watch as well as his frank approach to interviews makes him very relatable to players and fans alike.  A different personality again but one which is highly motivational and effective – for him.

Leadership, motivation and, ultimately, success is rooted in authenticity. Without it, you won’t be successful – and you’ll break your heart trying.

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