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5 Key Insights To Help You On The Way To Authentic Leadership

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

How can you become your best self as a leader? Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup Company, former president of Nabisco Foods and former chairman of Avon Products may have the answers. In his new book, The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights, written with Amy Federman, Conant wants aspiring leaders at all levels to find their footing and sharpen their game.

Conant writes as someone who has sat in the leader’s chair and walked the halls, and he shares practical questions and reflections to help you build your own foundation to leadership success. By adapting Conant’s principles to your own situation, you’ll gain confidence in your ability to lead and be able to build a stronger base of followers.

Lead by listening. Conant recommends putting in the effort to learn where your audience or your stakeholders are coming from. He suggests that leaders fall down when they develop a forward-looking plan but lead from their own instincts or experience without consulting intensely enough with their various constituencies. By asking penetrating questions and listening deeply to your stakeholders — customers, board members — for both what is being said and also what is not being said, you’ll start to understand what they’re truly looking for before you try to get their buy-in or propose your own ideas even as you’re also thinking about where the company needs to go.

By investing time and energy and engaging fervently in open dialog and hearing employees out, you can get them to the point where they’re fully on board. In fact, Conant says, “Then you’ve got them right where you want them, because they’re ready to go. They’re with you and they get that you really do understand and you really do care. Good people are only going to want to be working for people who can help them navigate [today’s complicated landscape] and who are going to listen to them and not just tell them.”

Make sure the person who’s leading is the real you. Conant references his own career history: “The more I bring myself to my work and the more I open up to people, the more I connect with them and the better we perform.” He stressed that it is possible to find a work culture that intersects strongly with your own values, even if you don’t agree with all the stances your management takes.

His recommendation is to “Focus on your circle of influence and your circle of control… It’s not about how the people above you are behaving. You have to own it as a leader at all levels. You can find a way to lead in a more enlightened way, be more of yourself, still have tough standards, still be caring about people. You’re clear with them, you’re transparent with them, you have high expectations of them, you show them you care… But you’ve really got to get anchored in who you are and how you want to show up.”

Take small steps to show tangible progress. Even as leaders declare a vision, mission and path for their organizations and teams, it’s also necessary to be effective in day-to-day activities, so employees recognize that actions are being taken and progress is occurring. Conant gives the example of when he first came to Campbell’s when the company was in terrible shape and the building and grounds themselves were suffering from neglect.

“Things were so bad at Campbell’s, they had discontinued the plant care service at headquarters. But the plants were still there and they all died…We could remove the dead plants, put in live plants, have a plant service. We could start making incremental changes every year, culminating in a world-class facility a decade later that we built near the end of my tenure. …Painting the curbs, getting rid of the razor wire, putting in estate fencing was rounding error in a corporate budget. But it sends a signal that says, ‘We can do better.’”

Be tough-minded and tender-hearted. Conant describes two crucial dimensions to leadership. First, you have to demonstrate accountability and deliver on your goals. At the same time, though, “You have to realize that leaders need followers who are going to show up for you when you’re not in the room and represent your best interests…They have to believe that you will have their backs, that you care about their agenda.” It can be hard to think about how to achieve both at once, and Conant shared a productive exercise. He suggested that you think of someone who had such a significant and profound impact on your development that this person has become an integral part of your leadership and life story.

He asks if that person — often not a boss, but a grandparent or teacher — had high standards. Almost everyone answers affirmatively, and he then asks if they also cared deeply about you and showed their caring and love in a way that made you want not to disappoint them. He then proposes that you use that person as your model for being tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted so that as you work with people they are also inspired to deliver their best results.

Emphasize what’s working. Conant believes that “even in the most broken companies, eight out of 10 things are being done right by good people.” In addition to holding people accountable and paying close attention to their needs and preferences, one of the most effective ways to build for the future and capture upside is to amplify the things and people that are working well. As Conant says, “It’s much easier to focus on the stuff that is working and celebrate the people who are making a difference. And the more you celebrate them, the more energy you give, the more support they get, the better they do and the better you feel.” And that makes your leadership a rewarding experience for all involved.

These are very challenging times to be a leader. But if you attend deeply to others’ views and concerns and highlight your team’s progress and accomplishments — while simultaneously holding people accountable for meeting high standards — team members will want to follow you, and you’ll be able to share yourself with them as both a leader and a full human being.

Onward and upward —


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