21st Century Leadership: It's Authentic

Most CEO's, or public-facing C-suite executives are outgoing and personable, but are they authentic? Through the Executives After Hours Podcast, I have interviewed over 90 CEOs, Directors, Authors, Senior Consultants and more. What I have gleaned from these interviews is that leaders who are authentic in their leadership style demonstrate four general attributes: Relatability, honesty, self-awareness, and compassion. This blog expands on these characteristics and gives examples of interviews that demonstrate these qualities. By no means is this an exhaustive list, as many interviewees show these qualities, and I would encourage you to listen to any of the interviews to learn how these individuals became leaders in their respective fields. You can click here to see the list of interviews.


Authentic Leaders know they need to inspire their team to work with them and for them. If you have read a Dale Carnegie book, one key takeaway is leaders find a way to relate to others. By discovering shared experiences between team members, trust builds through an understanding of one's similar life experiences. Everyone has a story and finding bits and pieces that you share is a sure fire way to create a space where the team can flourish through trust, respect, and understanding. Authentic Leaders use this to create a healthy, supportive and thriving work culture.

Episode #45: Mark Crowley (Speaker, Change Agent for Culture & Engagement; Author of the Amazon Best Seller, "Lead From The Heart"). Mark can meet you where you are and quickly find commonalities between your life and his. He immediately puts you at ease and during the podcast you quickly see why he moved up the corporate world ranks and had teams that went above and beyond for him.


Authentic Leaders know that we live in a world where being honest is difficult. Most people do not want to intentionally hurt someone's feelings or be callous or unemotional when delivering good or bad news. So at times, it is much easier to sugar coat truths or omit key bits of facts to spare someone’s feelings. Authentic Leaders have the ability to deliver the good, the bad, and the ugly news in an honest, direct and compassionate way. They do this by having your best interests in mind. Sometimes it takes tough, honest conversations to move the team. The key is the delivery.

Episode #36 Dr. John Nagl (Retired Army Officer & Head Master at The Haverford School for Boys). Educated by the Jesuit order, John took a unique perspective into West Point Academy and doubled down on developing the leadership style that screams integrity and honesty. Couple this with his ability to speak off the cuff (due to his many awards in Debate), John works to deliver a highly open, constructive organizational culture at The Haverford School. In the podcast, he wears his passion on his sleeve, while maintaining an intellect that drives his mission to create a culture of learning. But have no doubt, as he describes in the podcast, he leads like an Eagle and will swoop down to kill his prey... In a nice way, though.


Authentic Leaders are self-aware. They are vulnerable to their team so they can surround themselves with members who support their strengths and compliment their weaknesses. Recently there has been a string of research that suggest that leaders who are a highly self-aware move up faster and higher in the organization. The reasoning is straightforward. Authentic Leaders who hold this trait can reflect on the past, learn from mistakes and successes and move forward. They don't sit in the past, just learn from it and move on. This builds confidence, develops humility, and strengthens self-respect, which leads to being more 'real' and authentic.

Episode #76 Joe Burton (CEO of Whil.Com). Joe had his dream career as a global COO in multiple public companies, but in 2009 he realized he was slowly killing himself and wasn't the nicest manager or husband. Exit stage right and Joe reflected on who he was and who he wanted to be. After advising 30+ tech startups, Joe found Mindfulness and the rest is history. In 2014, Joe founded Whil (whil.com), an online platform focused on stress resiliency, mindfulness, and leadership training. By taking stock on where he came from and where he wants to go, Joe changed his life and his leadership style to be authentic.


Authentic Leaders have compassion for their team members. They understand that everyone has a bad day, every family has difficulties, and not every employee who clocks in has the ability to leave their baggage at the door. There is nothing wrong with an Authentic Leader demanding that their team perform at a high level, but having compassion for the bad those rough days is essential. As noted, everyone has a story, and Authentic Leaders realize that a pluralistic society of employees is diverse and filled with unique beliefs and different paths. Compassion can be the one element that builds tolerance, acceptance and an opportunity for connecting.

Episode #66: Mitch Martens (Employee Wellness Administrator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center). Mitch heads-up a program at Cedars-Sinai Health System that meets the employees where they are today, and then provides wellbeing opportunities that connect with their own personal wellness journey. By taking this individualized approach and encouraging employees to walk their own path, “choice architecture”, Cedars-Sinai is knowingly creating a culture of compassion. In the interview I ask Mitch what animal best represents his management style. Mitch eloquently states a White Tiger, because it is one-of-a-kind. This one-of-kind program doesn't happen if Mitch doesn't embrace his own unique journey. With humor, grace and compassion you will hear that building a wellbeing program from compassion might just be the key to their success.


Authentic Leaders are adept at relating to each team member in their own unique way. They meet their team members where they are at, and then provide support to move the individual where they need to go. But for me, one of the defining abilities of an Authentic Leader is the ability to turn-up or turn-down the individual Authentic Leader qualities when circumstances require. Authentic Leaders are always thinking forward, reasoning back and determining what the teams need are to fulfill the strategy.

Episode #71 Lisa Buckingham (Chief Human Resource Officer at Lincoln Financial). All of my interviewees have demonstrated many of these characteristics, but if I was, to sum up, one interviewee who exemplifies these four qualities, it is Lisa. Lisa breaks down the perception that C-Suite executives at major global organizations are of the ‘other’. Lisa uses her upbringing on a farm to humanize her and strengthen her ‘salt of the earth’ mentality. Her openness provides a safe space to build trust and commence in an open and honest dialog. Having busted her ass, but also having typical life hiccups, Lisa has compassion for her team, but don't worry; she also keeps it real. As she states in the podcast, she doesn't have time to sugar coat problems. However, all this these traits are only possible because Lisa is highly self-aware of who she is, what she wants, and her overall strengths and weaknesses. She truly exemplifies the Authentic Leader.

With over 4,800 minutes of interviews produced on Executive After Hours, there are many lessons to glean. On the surface, one may perceive that these interviews are just conversations, similar to the ones you have at a coffee shop with a friend. However, once you uncover where they come from, what animal represents their management style, what advice they would give their 25-year-old self or what do they want their gravestone to say, you learn much, much more. You learn that truly successful people (we can define this later), are successful both professionally and privately at being authentic.

There are plenty of individuals who make a boat load of money, who are CEO’s, but are miserable human beings. As I see it, Authentic Leaders are 21st Century leaders who are competent at relating to others, are self-aware, are honesty and have compassion. Where to do you want to go in 2017?

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