How to lead with authenticity

Experienced executive Jim Fielding explains why his leadership philosophy revolves around authenticity and outlines how today’s challenges can be met by creating respectful and empowering work environments

In an environment impacted by so many factors, today’s leadership challenges are the biggest I’ve seen in more than 35 years of working in the global retail and media industries.

The global economy is sluggish. Consumer sentiment, especially in the US, is down nearly 20 per cent from last year. There are multiple global conflicts and wars. Climate change is affecting us, both personally and professionally. In addition, we are still emerging from  the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns and isolation.  

Leading in a new reality

Around the world, managers and leaders are met with a myriad of questions and decisions to make, such as:

  • Should your team be remote, hybrid, virtual, or in-person?
  • Can you mandate certain days and time in the office, or will that create confusion and morale issues within the team?
  • How do you handle team members who were hired virtually during the pandemic and must now work in physical office locations?
  • How do you lead, motivate, inspire and direct in this new reality?
  • How do you manage in this climate of high demand for talent?  Are you competitive with salary, benefits and working rules?  How do you create employee satisfaction and stability?

One thing I know with certainty is that talent is paramount to business success. You must have the ability to attract, retain and develop people at all levels of your organisation.

I also know that the so-called ‘war for talent’ is real, especially in major cities and among younger generations and entry-level roles. People are managing their careers with more control and clarity than at any other time in recent history. The factors they are considering in how and where to work are more dynamic and diverse than I could have ever imagined.

What does a leader do in this environment? What can future leaders study and research while they pursue their advanced degrees and education? True Leaders rise to any challenge and this situation is no different.

My leadership style and philosophy is rooted in one relatively simple belief – that leaders must strive to create safe, empowering and respectful environments where all team members can live and lead with authenticity.

What does an authentic work environment look and feel like?

A leader must first make a personal commitment to lead and role model authenticity. They must be willing to share their goals openly, share their stories and, most importantly, share their concerns and vulnerabilities honestly.

They then must create a safe, respectful and empowering work environment where their team truly feels enabled to perform at their best and live their authentic lives. There must be no fear of marginalisation or double standards in their jobs, especially if they are from an underrepresented group.

Next, the leader needs to focus on community and culture. When I worked at 20th Century Fox, one of my favourite tools to accomplish this was called ‘Java with Jim’. This would involve selecting a random group of 15-20 people from the team and inviting them to a one-hour session for coffee and doughnuts. The only rules were to leave judgment and criticism at the door and to come with ideas for improvement and questions for me about our work and the company.

There was so much two-way learning at these sessions. I always gained new insights and ideas and I feel participants walked away knowing they were valued and had access to me in a simple and enjoyable setting. We started these meetings quarterly and due to overwhelming demand, they became monthly events.

Growing and changing never stops

After 35 years of managing and leading, I believe authenticity is the key to navigating uncertainty.  Authentic leadership means working with and through people, rather than working ‘on’ people. It means striving every day to lead with confidence, not arrogance, and to remain vulnerable, open and curious. It is a constant practice and I am far from perfect.   

Authentic leaders never stop growing and changing. They need to evolve with the dynamics of the teams they manage and the industries where they contribute.

Lastly, remember that leading teams of human beings is an honour and a privilege. Put your team’s success over your own and not only will you see incredible results, but you will also feel more fulfilled and joyful in your work. When we live and lead authentically, we can overcome any challenge thrown our way.

Jim Fielding is president of Co-Lab at Archer Gray and the author of All Pride, No Ego (Wiley). Fielding is an experienced executive with more than 30 years’ experience and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Indiana University Foundation

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