Instead of Leading by Being Something You’re Not, Lead by Being Authentically You

The following is adapted from Begin With WE.

Imagine your boss is late to meetings on a regular basis—not all the time, but often enough to annoy. What message does that send? That his time is more important than yours? Or he was late because he was so busy doing important boss stuff?

Now imagine that your boss is consistently on time or even early. That punctuality communicates two things: your meetings are important, and your time is important.

A leader’s example implicitly sets a standard. If you have a leader who shows up early to meetings, you feel obligated to follow suit. You make being on time for those meetings a priority. Of course, the same is true for everyone who observes your behavior as a leader.

The truth is, you are already leading by example. Fundamentally, “leading by example” means establishing a standard and following it. Leading by example requires real effort at quality control, but instead of QC for your product or service, you’re doing QC on your own behavior and attitude. This includes how you carry yourself, your behavior, your choice of words, how you respond to adversity, how you rally your team to deliver—all the ways in which you engage your people.

Authenticity Matters

As a leader, your words and actions will be mirrored. This is as true for how you talk as how you act. For example, it’s become clear to me that I overuse phrases like “unicorns-and-rainbows,” “postmortem,” and “Let’s kill it,” because I’ve heard those words fired back at me so often. 

One phrase that I’m actually proud of working into the corporate culture is, “I appreciate you.” I rarely, if ever, heard anyone say it in a work setting until I started ending almost every one-on-one meeting with that phrase. I started hearing my direct reports tell their own team members the same.

Obviously, you want the mirror to reflect the best parts of you. But the image you cast must be authentic, meaning you don’t need to dress and speak like an Ivy League graduate if that isn’t who you genuinely are. 

Authentic leadership certainly doesn’t mean your words are 28 letters long. It doesn’t mean avoiding slang or curse words and attempting to speak “perfectly” at all times. In fact, I happen to think some well-chosen curse words help create a more transparent, open team culture!

Don’t lead by being something you’re not. Lead by being you, warts and all—and be open about those warts. People value that authenticity. Being a good leader means being relatable to those who are in your charge. It means you’re clear about your expectations and standards, and you hold everyone accountable to them, including (especially) yourself.

Authentic Leaders Wipe the Counters

As a leader, you set an example in nearly everything you do: how you hire, how you fire, how you talk, how you treat the frontline employees, and how you treat the boss. When you lead authentically in all those areas, in such a way that your actions align with your own professed standards, your people follow the positive example.

Here’s a seemingly trivial story to illustrate. Years ago, I frequently visited one of my facilities in Virginia, home to roughly 2,000 incredibly dedicated service professionals. I always loved visiting this site, except for one thing: the counter in the primary men’s restroom in this sprawling facility was always soaked with water. Every square inch of this high-traffic counter was wet.

Like every other gentleman who entered, I’d wash and dry my hands before exiting. I always tried my best to not add to the soaked basin. On one of these occasions, I was standing shoulder to shoulder, washing my hands alongside a member of the crew, when it hit me—so many eyes could see me contribute to the problem, but do nothing to actually solve the issue.

Leaders are always setting an example. Yes, even in the restroom. So I started wiping down the counters every time I used that restroom. Not just a quick swipe of a paper towel either—I made sure that counter was bone-dry after washing my hands. I did this not because I’m OCD about dry countertops, but for two reasons. One, it might have made someone else’s trip to the sinks less unpleasant, and two, there were always other people there, watching me doing it.

Authenticity Inspires Loyalty

I wanted to send the message that I was willing to get my hands dirty, and I care about our work environment. No one person is too important to roll up their sleeves and do something that benefits all. And wouldn’t you know it, as time went on, I started noticing the counters were dry more often than not. The 30 seconds of extra effort was noticed and replicated. I led by example, and others followed suit.

Leaders who set a good example reap a host of benefits. It’s not just dry countertops either; it’s loyalty, high performance, better morale, more committed teams, and higher-quality, more impactful work. Leaders inspire loyalty when they live up to their own standards. People will follow you into a burning building if they see your authenticity and believe in you. Never let them question if you would do the same.

Authentic leaders show they’re human, allowing their team members to be authentically human too. They take pride in vulnerability—acknowledging when they’re having a rough day, owning their mistakes, and admitting they’re not perfect. When the crew follows suit by opening up about their own challenges, a good leader responds with understanding and empathy.

Improve Work Ethic and Morale

When leaders set a positive example, the culture of excellence is reflected, in part, via improved work ethic and morale. The saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” comes to mind. 

If the leader is truly dedicated to the team’s success—both inside and outside the workplace—outsiders want to join the team. And these new members are inspired to model the observed behavior, paying it forward. If we’re all following the best example, it’s impossible for us not to deliver great results and wow the customer.

Humans want to be surrounded by authentic, caring people. And this desire doesn’t end when we’re on the clock. So why should the workplace be any different? It shouldn’t. Period. And authentically leading by example establishes a happier, healthier, higher-performing work environment for everyone—including you.

For more advice on how to create a happier, healthier, and higher-performing workplace, you can find Begin With WE on Amazon.

Kyle McDowell is an author, speaker, and leadership coach with nearly three decades of experience leading tens of thousands of employees at some of the biggest companies in the United States. With an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Kyle is widely known for his inspiring approaches to transforming bosses into leaders and reshaping corporate cultures.