Authentic Leadership Requires Personal Connections

In my search for trends and research in leadership and culture, sometimes I come across some really compelling stories. The underlying theme in both of the following stories is simple: authentic leadership requires personal connection.

The first example is from the coaching career of Tom Landry. The second is from then-CEO of Wyndham Hotels, Stephen Holmes.

Leaders want to inspire others to meet performance objectives. And, leaders develop work passion among followers as well as high performance if those leaders are authentic and connect with the individual people they are trying to inspire. In order to do so, leaders need to BE REAL – that is, they need to demonstrate authentic consideration of their people, have a sense of humor, and create personal connections that last.


Landry: People are Interchangeable Parts of a Winning System

Tom Landry served as the Cowboy’s head coach for 29 years; his accomplishments include 20 straight winning seasons, five NFC titles, and two Super Bowl wins. His players respected Landry and his system – and many indicated that, during their years of playing for Landry, he was distant and more committed to his system than to individual players.

Two examples were shared in the film. First, All-Pro linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson described Landry as focused on the players as interchangeable parts of the system. Henderson believed Landry never knew of his drug addiction or alcohol abuse. Henderson said, “Coach never asked. He wasn’t interested in players’ personal lives.”

NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach described a tenuous personal relationship with Landry. Staubach, a Heisman Trophy winner, spend 10 years leading the Cowboys – he was MVP of Super Bowl VI. Staubach relates, with emotion in his voice, a telling demonstration of Landry’s focus on the system and NOT the players: when Staubach retired after the 1979 season, Landry didn’t even shake Roger’s hand.

Landry did soften in his later years. Henderson describes being shocked – and pleasantly surprised – when Landry attended Henderson’s 10-year anniversary of sobriety. At that event, Landry took the podium and praised Henderson not only for his football accomplishments but for the courage and dedication required to beat his addictions.

Certainly, Landry should be celebrated for his team’s accomplishments . . . yet one wonders how much more America’s Team could have accomplished if players felt a personal connection with their head coach.


Wyndham’s Gracious and Welcoming CEO

Stephen Holmes, now the Chairman of the board of Wyndham Hotels, was CEO when this story came to light. Holmes was interviewing a candidate for a key executive position. The evening meal ran long during which it began snowing heavily. They called the car service to take the candidate to his hotel. The car service told them that, due to road conditions, it would take an hour to reach the restaurant. Instead of making the candidate wait for the ride, Holmes offered to take the candidate to his home. The candidate was extremely impressed – and enjoyed meeting Stephen’s family as part of the experience.

Holmes’ calm and friendly approach served him – and Wyndham – very well. People enjoy working for a person who sincerely cares for them, and they loved working for Holmes when he was CEO.

Demonstrate authentic leadership by:

  • Taking time, regularly, to personally connect with staff members.
  • Discuss their families.
  • Find out their hobbies, and their dreams.

You’ve hired smart people with rich lives outside the workplace – connect to the “whole” person.

Be real. Let people know what worries you, what excites you. Laugh with staff members and not at them. Don’t be afraid of making a personal connection.


Contributed by S. Chris Edmonds, Founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group. 

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