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Uber’s CEO Just Taught a Powerful Lesson in Authentic Leadership. Here It Is in 5 Words

It’s about more than just keeping it real.

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BY Justin Bariso - 06 Dec 2018

lesson in authentic leadership

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Just over a year ago, Dara Khosrowshahi took over the reins at Uber. The company's board had decided it was time for a change, as its previous CEO, cofounder Travis Kalanick, was struggling with the challenges of moving to the next level, along with the manifestation of a toxic culture.

Khosrowshahi had proved successful at running the travel-focused Expedia Group, but he was only one of a handful of candidates vying for the vacant spot.

What convinced Uber's board members that Khosrowshahi was the right person to lead the company into the future?

According to Khosrowshahi, a lot had to do with his "dead honesty."

Let's go back in time, just before the Uber board made its decision on the new chief executive. Candidates were expected to deliver individual presentations; the time had now come for Khosrowshahi to make his case.

"I was just dead honest about what I brought to the table and what I thought I needed in order to succeed at the company," Khosrowshahi said in a recent, revealing discussion at Stanford Business School. "I talked about my expectations of the board...and also that with the founders of the company being very much a part of the company spirit and culture and what built that company, if they really wanted a new leader of that company it needed to be very clear who the leader was, and that I expected the board to be there for me but I needed the freedom to maneuver appropriately and make changes that I felt needed to be made quickly because this was a tough situation.

"So, I was very straight with the board about those issues."

Of course, Khosrowshahi got the job in the end--and after a year in his new role, he seems to be steering the company in the right direction.

Khosrowshahi's story highlights a major lesson, and it can be summarized in just five words:

Great leadership requires respectful authenticity.

The value of respectful authenticity

The ability to deliver honest feedback respectfully is a key facet of emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.

Over the past year, Khosrowshahi has demonstrated his use of emotional intelligence to reach others on a visceral level. Whether it's a persuasive presentation or a powerful email,he finds a way to make others think and motivate them to action.

The problem with the "dead honest" approach is that it can work to your disadvantage, if you're not careful. Nobody wants to work with a brilliant jerk, someone who constantly criticizes you in a way that makes you feel stupid or that takes away your dignity.

But if you can be authentic while showing respect, if your words and actions convince them that you're on the same side and that your goal is to help--now you've got something special.

Of course, just because you're respectful doesn't mean people will always appreciate what you have to say.

At least, at first they won't.

For example, Khosrowshahi says initially one of the board members told him that his frankness wasn't so well received. Khosrowshahi responded by saying, "Well, if it wasn't that well-received man I'm glad. Because this is important to me."

Direct feedback, negative feedback, is hard to take. But smart people, growth-oriented people, will appreciate it--as long as it's delivered in a way that's meant to help and not harm.

In the end, Khosrowshahi was hired because rather than focus on saying what the board wanted to hear, he told them what they needed to hear--but he did so with respect.

Khosrowshahi continues to strive to implement this into Uber's culture. In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, journalist Joanna Stern asked Khosrowshahi what he's done to change Uber's reputation for having a "sharp-elbowed" culture.

"We've put on our elbow pads," Khosrowshahi responded. "We expect you to disagree, but disagree respectfully."

So, remember: Authenticity is all about keeping it real. If you want to help others to grow, you'll need to be dead honest with them about their strengths and weaknesses.

But the best kind of leadership requires respectful authenticity.

Because when others trust that you have their best interests at heart, they'll be ready to follow.

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