boss presenting to team of employees
Expert contributor Douglas Conant offers tangible advice to business leaders looking to incorporate their true selves into their work personalities and boost their effectiveness. — Getty Images/Prostock-Studio

If you could create your own fantasy Board of Directors who would be on it? CO— connects you with thought leaders from across the business spectrum and asks them to help solve your biggest business challenges. In this edition, a CO— reader asks for tips on how one can successfully keep and portray individuality while in the position of being the boss.

Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, founder of ConantLeadership, New York Times bestselling author and author of the upcoming book, "The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights," answers…

To be a great boss, you must be yourself.

Today’s leaders are swamped. They’re overwhelmed by a deluge of competing priorities and unprecedented complexity. On top of that, they don’t feel like they can be themselves. They compartmentalize, developing a “work” identity and “personal” identity — and the two are at odds. Managing the tension created by this compartmentalization becomes yet another task in a never-ending litany of to-dos and pressures.

It does not have to be this way. The key to unlocking exceptional leadership is actually found through a clear-eyed exploration of you — the real, true you — coupled with a commitment to continuous improvement. There is only one you; nobody else can lead like you can. The best way to be a great boss is by being more fully yourself and striving to do better each day. When you couple growth with authenticity, you have a winning leadership combination.

Learning to lead like only you can is urgent for many reasons, but chiefly because people are savvy. Employees can tell when leaders are inauthentic or complacent — and it discourages them from feeling comfortable to open up, ask smart questions or propose innovative solutions. And your associates face the same bandwidth limitations that you do; they’re busy. So, if you’re not making the time to get better, why should they? More now than ever, you have to be genuine and on your game.

When you are fully yourself as a leader and you are devoted to self-improvement, people feel compelled to model that behavior with their own actions and the authenticity and growth orientation spreads virally across the organization. This enables everyone to connect and sharpen their skills so the entire team can attack the challenges of the day more effectively.

The best leaders are the ones who are unabashedly themselves: They are effective because they are authentic.

Douglas Conant, founder of ConantLeadership

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Hiding your true self means ‘only bringing half’ of yourself to work

I understand why leaders believe they must choose between being themselves and being a great boss. Earlier in my career, I was shy and reserved. I kept my head down, hiding my grit and passion behind a comfortable façade. But that didn’t serve me. I ended up getting fired from my job, despite being hardworking, because I had failed to make the necessary impression. I’d been playing it safe, only bringing half of myself to work.

Getting fired kickstarted a lifetime of discovery that helped me revolutionize my leadership and transform my career trajectory. What I found on that journey spanning over 40 years at every rung on the ladder — from entry level to the Fortune 500 C-suite, CEO and chairman ranks, to founder of my own small business — is that the best leaders are the ones who are unabashedly themselves: They are effective because they are authentic. And they don’t rest on their laurels; they’re always learning and growing.

Steps to bringing authenticity into leadership

The way to become an effective, authentic and successful leader is through a series of small, manageable steps that are continuously repeated — a process that I call “The Blueprint”:

  • First, you develop a deeper self-understanding through reflection and study.
  • Then, you design a leadership model that thoughtfully expresses your unique personality and strengths (realizing you won’t get it right on the first try).
  • Next, you practice and improve your leadership approach, sharing it with others and honing your craft.
  • Finally, you do it all over again, getting better each time.

The more you go through the steps, the more comfortable you get in your skin, and the more adept you become at bringing your true self to your leadership, which allows you to solve problems faster and show up more competently when people need you most.

 douglas conant headshot
Douglas Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, founder of ConantLeadership and New York Times bestselling author. — Douglas Conant

How to ‘declare yourself’ and your intent as a leader

Understanding the need to be yourself is one thing — but executing it is another. It can be intimidating to tell people explicitly who you are and how you intend to lead. To address this reticence, I developed a practice called “Declaring Yourself.”

People are not mind readers. You can’t expect them to intuit your motivations or understand your leadership expectations unless you tell them. So, the first hour of the first day I work with someone, I declare myself. I set aside an hour for a one-on-one meeting aimed at removing the mystery from our working relationship. Rather than spend the first few months trying to figure each other out, I’ve found it’s much more productive to tackle the issue head on.

When I declare myself, I share:

  • What is important to me.
  • What kind of leader I’m trying to be.
  • What I value in an organization.
  • What I seek in direct reports.
  • How I believe our industry operates.
  • My planning philosophy.
  • My operating style.
  • My background and credentials.
  • My favorite quotes.
  • What can be expected of me.
  • What I expect from others.

Afterwards I say, “I just declared how I intend to behave and some of the motivation for that behavior. If I do what I say I will do, I guess that means you can trust me. If I don’t, I guess that means you can’t.” If my actions align with my words, they can continue to put their faith in me.

I always invite the other person to declare themselves to me in turn at a subsequent meeting. Not everybody takes me up on it. But when they do, it strengthens our relationship and often leads to higher performance.

To become the best boss you can be, I encourage you to be fully yourself. Reflect on who you are, what you believe, and how you want to show up at work. Commit to getting — and doing — better. Then, find the courage to declare yourself to others. You’ll find it builds trust, strengthens relationships and fortifies the entire effort, leading to stronger performance and greater outcomes.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published December 12, 2019