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4 Steps for Leading With Honesty and Openness

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In my 14 years as an entrepreneur, I’ve seen many times that open, honest, vulnerable leaders see better results than those who always want to look like the smartest or most powerful person in the room and don’t communicate from the heart.

As aspiring or new entrepreneurs look to set foundations for growing their businesses, they shouldn’t expect to lead as the sole people who employees rely on for wisdom, direction, and decision-making. Instead, they should aim to be open to distributing accountability and authority to other smart, hard-working leaders, managers, and individual contributors. Sure, there is value in entrepreneurship in being a rugged individualist — I’ve seen these types care deeply about their organizations, employees, and customers. As businesses grow and leadership responsibilities become greater, however, I’ve also seen many struggle to ask for help.

That’s why those who can’t transition from the “genius and a thousand followers” approach fail more frequently than those who can let go and trust in other great people. And the surest way to build that trust is to be an open, honest, and vulnerable leader. 

The Value in Transparent Leadership

Leaders who recognize the value in seeking help, engaging others, embracing criticism, and understanding that mistakes are inevitable even for themselves allow members to speak more freely and teams to workshop and challenge ideas collaboratively. We all have to work hard at being open, honest, and vulnerable in our communication.

Although a select few of the entrepreneurial leaders I’ve had the good fortune of working with have shown intrinsic abilities for vulnerability-based trust and transparent communication, for most it comes after a lot of learning and hard work. Remember that it’s all about trust and having the courage to let your guard down and be real, raw, and human with your employees. The following steps can help leaders lead with openness, honesty, and vulnerability and encourage the same approach throughout their organizations:

1. Stop saying interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence are “soft.”

The first step in adopting a more transparent, raw, and real leadership style is to truly believe that leading this way matters. That sounds obvious, but I’ve seen many leaders dismiss vulnerability, genuine caring, effective communication, and transparency as “fluff” or “soft skills.”

But saying something is a “soft skill” might make others think that it’s unimportant, or not as important as other “hard” skills. You want activities and behavior that improve trust, communication skills, and team health to be top priority, and you want everyone on your team to take those activities seriously.

As you invest time, energy, and money in developing your own interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, you will signal to others that it’s a valuable and important endeavor. As you build yourself up, others will come along with you, and you will attract the right people to help your business grow.

“Start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.” – Lee Iacocca

2. Read with your team and work together to meet the standards those books set.

If you want to learn more effective leadership skills, you have so many resources that can help. Start with some excellent books on the subject. My recommendations include Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead,” Gino Wickman and René Boer’s “How to Be a Great Boss,” Dr. Henry Cloud’s “Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality,” Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor,” and Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul.”

Reading these books on your own can be beneficial, but really only to you. If you read them with your colleagues, however, you can bring more immediate and sustainable improvement. Assess yourselves against the standards these books set, and commit to closing the gaps you identify.

3. Remain teachable and reach out for help.

Entrepreneurs already know the value of being good and eager learners. Consider, however, that being an unlearner is equally important. And it can be more difficult to master. After building resolute habits over time, it can be hard to change them or adopt new ways of thinking on your own. That’s why it’s important for entrepreneurs to focus on keeping their minds open and not getting set into single paths or ways of doing things.

Remain flexible and teachable. I’ve found that if you do feel you’re stuck in a one-track way of thinking, reaching out to others is the best way to get out of the rut. Other entrepreneurs and leaders you look up to, leadership coaches, therapists, spiritual leaders — specifically where and from whom you find what you need will vary, of course, but the point is that reaching out for help is never a bad thing.

4. Practice courage when it comes to tough conversations.

Part of being a great leader also means being straightforward with the bad and the ugly — not just the good. Letting someone go because they’re not the right fit, telling employees they’re underperforming, or any other number of difficult conversations take a lot of courage to deliver openly and transparently.

But great leaders serve others above themselves, and it’s important to remember that sharing negative feedback is the only way to help people make progress. Just remember that any feedback worth sharing will be rooted in data, and data should be the driver of the conversation. Data cuts through egos, biases, and opinions to help you make the smartest decisions. Deciding on feelings alone will only tear down your credibility and pollute the environment with distrust. Transparent conversations based on facts, on the other hand, will lend to an open and honest culture.

With the appropriate tools at heart and the right mindset, I believe that entrepreneurs and growth-stage leaders will see great success leading honestly, openly, and with a newfound trust in their teams and themselves.

Mark O’Donnell is the visionary at EOS Worldwide and is passionate about helping entrepreneurs get what they want from their businesses. He helps clients clarify their goals and objectives and take actionable steps to achieve them. Mark is a four-time Inc. 500|5000 entrepreneur with experience in high-growth organizations.

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