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Why Authentic Leadership is More Important Than Ever

January 20th, 2021 7 min to read

What is authentic leadership? To start, let's take a look at what Pete Carroll, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has to say about it:

“It isn’t about the words you say. It’s about the energetic message you send.”

Pete Carroll’s energy and passion for the game are infectious. You never see him get in a player’s face after a bad play. Even when his team is losing, Pete rallies his players and gives them pep talks to keep them focused on winning. For him, it’s all about positivity and enabling players to reach their full potential.

That positivity is at the core of his coaching and training program called “Compete to Create” which he created with high-performance psychologist Michael Gervais. It’s a must-listen for anyone who leads a team. Three key values resonate with me the most:

  1. The positive mindset that Carroll exhibits both on and off the field. He has built a culture that embraces failures and owns mistakes. Cultures that run on positivity fare much better than those that don’t.

  2. The ability to reset and rebalance. Carroll was at the center of one of the most controversial calls in NFL history. Here was the scenario: in Super Bowl XLIX, the Seahawks were trailing by four points in the final minute of the fourth quarter. On the one-yard line, he approved a risky passing play instead of letting powerhouse running back Marshawn Lynch run the ball. The Patriots intercepted the ball and won the game, a decision that still haunts Seahawks fans to this day. Carroll took a lot of heat for looking unfazed on the sidelines after the controversial call, but in reality, he felt that gut punch just as hard as everyone else. He processed it and immediately reset. His players were still relying on him, and Carroll knew he needed to be there for them during such an emotional moment.

  3. Living in the present. If you want to create, you have to be locked into the present. Experiences from the past inspire the learnings of today; however, it’s important not to be stuck in those past experiences. Excitement about the future will drift your mindset away from what you need to accomplish today to create that future. Living in the present unlocks your true potential. It’s this mindset that fosters the belief that something good is about to happen.

For me, what comes across most in Carroll’s interviews and books is his authenticity. He describes himself as a born competitor. Everything he says and does comes from the heart – his message is clear and resonates with the team. His philosophy has helped inspire coaches, teachers and business leaders alike. He's the perfect example of authentic leadership.

In our last series of blogs, we’ve looked at how our friends at Vin Room, Friday Socks and Local Laundry used innovation to “ride the pandemic bull” and maintain their businesses during these challenging times. Now we’re going to steer the conversation towards leadership and learn strategies to manage your team and keep them invested and engaged.

Who better to start with than someone who coaches the coaches.


Dustin Anderson - Stack'd Consulting

For more than 20 years, Stack’d Consulting CEO Dustin Anderson has worked with innovative business leaders looking to create something exceptional with their companies.

How has the pandemic affected the business leaders you work with?

There’s been much uncertainty this year. Some leaders stood up to the challenge, viewed this as an opportunity, and were decisive in what needed to be done. You had others who were paralyzed and did the ostrich thing – putting your head in the sand and waiting for it to pass. There was a bold group of clients who were more concerned with things like ‘how do I show up? How do I lead? How do I protect my people?”

We had some tough conversations with our clients when it came to communicating with their employees. On the one hand, they’re telling their team ‘it's going to be business as usual. We're going to do our best to survive.’ And then they’re having the secret conversations with us saying ‘we don't know if we're going to survive. Can you help us make cuts?’ It comes back to the notion of authenticity. Employees can pick up on it right away. When a leader contradicts what they’ve promised, it puts them in a very tough situation.

What advice do you give to business leaders about authentic leadership?

Have frequent open and honest communication. The challenge is that leaders want to fill in the gaps when facing uncertainty and change because they feel that's their role as a leader. They feel the need to provide information, but sometimes the best answer is ‘I don't know.’ Be your raw, authentic self and don’t follow a script. Tell it how it is. Tell them what you are worried about and what you are doing to figure it out.

Our advice to leaders is to be as honest and as vulnerable as you can. Empathy is crucial. You don't want to speculate on things because if you speculate and you're wrong, it works against you.

The challenge is that while you need to be authentic during a crisis, employees are primarily thinking about themselves during these stressful times. In our discussions, we talk a lot about the ‘FUD’ factor, which stands for fear, uncertainty and doubt. It's similar to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, where people focus on their necessities. It's all about ‘what's in it for me? Will I have food on the table? Can I protect my family?’ They’re not always listening intently to the company message because they’re too self-focused. If leaders don’t have frequent conversations with their team or are not straightforward, trust is easily broken. That could be much more detrimental than just saying ‘I don't know.’

How can leaders build and maintain authenticity with their customers?

Leaders need to stay true to their purpose (i.e. their reason for being) and their brand promises. Similar to your employees, you need to communicate frequently, openly and honestly. Listen. Have a dash of vulnerability. More than ever, you need to build trust and work every day to maintain it as the world is changing so quickly during the pandemic. Create customer experiences they want with your brand today, not what it was yesterday.

Customer loyalty is lost every day, and now is the right time for a reset. The list of market leaders in any given industry seems to be changing every day. There is an opportunity to seize on being authentic and providing a great customer experience. What customers want from an experience perspective has also changed. They are looking for the basics - convenience, security and safety. For businesses, it then becomes about empathizing with what your customer truly wants. Brand loyalty is lost because someone else is filling that gap for them. You have to ask yourself, ‘how do I create those great customer experiences to set my business apart?’

You also have to realize that you can’t have an outstanding customer experience unless you have a great employee experience. You have to provide your team with great experiences, so they're doing the same thing for your customers. The ultimate goal is to get customers to switch their loyalty. We launched a whole new business around this called “XLAB” where the goal is to create memorable experiences for both customers and employees. I think there are huge opportunities for people to compete and win in that space.