Authenticity may be the most important trait of successful leaders

Many people pay a lot of money to coaching organizations to become better leaders. Executive leadership coach John M. McKee says there's a more effective and less expensive approach.

"John, I need a coach to teach me how to be a leader. I'm good technically, but recently I was promoted to a role I never expected. And, in all honesty, I'm not prepared to lead a team."

That was a real call I received years ago. I hear a lot of people say similar things all the time. As markets return to prior levels, more organizations are hiring. And more people are getting promoted again. You may find yourself in a similar situation, if you haven't already.

So, what should you do if and when you are bumped up the ladder? Is spending money the best first step toward becoming a good leader? I say, "NO!"

And if you think it is the best first step, you may end up spending money with a career development organization or individual offering a "program" that's really just some well-packaged canned tips and styles that, while good on paper, may never feel authentic.

And that — authenticity — may be the single most important trait of successful leaders.

It all starts with you being real: Most of us have a kind of radar that alerts us when someone is spouting lines that they don't believe in. Many studies show that by the time we reach adolescence, we're already pretty savvy at recognizing BS.

My advice? Before you spend your hard-earned money to "learn" how to be a leader, take these steps:

First — make a promise to yourself that you will always be authentic. Keep that promise.

Next — take some time to reflect about the best boss you ever had or witnessed. Describe him/her to yourself. Write down what attributes come to mind. Noodle on things like:

  • Was he/she strong?
  • Did he/she show any interest in your personal life?
  • Was he/she successful? In both work and  personal life or just one?
  • Was he/she healthy and/or fit? Or overweight/unhealthy?
  • Was he/she highly smart or just average in the IQ arena? ("Life smarts" are not always due to IQ.)
  • Did he/she typically "tell" or "ask"?

Questions like these will help you assess what you care about when it comes to leadership. They help you decide what kind of a leader you want to be. This is important. All skills in development need to be thoughtfully planned and implemented before they become strong and a part of your fabric.

Of course, your situation may be different. But the key is this:

Start acting like the boss you'd want above you. Do it using your own authentic style. This will greatly improve your chances of being proud of yourself as a leader. When we're proud of ourselves, we're more open to new ideas and less defensive. And success breeds success. In all likelihood, you'll grow and become a better boss. But what if it doesn't work? To be straight with you, it may not. In that case, you learn to make "running changes" by modifying your style. Adjust. Test new approaches that resonate with the real you.

If you practice your style consciously and thoughtfully, you will surprise and impress both yourself and others.

That's guaranteed.

- John


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

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