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Authentic Leaders Aren’t Afraid of Being Vulnerable

From health challenges to domestic violence, executives shared their personal struggles at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. on Tuesday. Being vulnerable to their coworkers, rather than masking their hardships, strengthened their professional relationships and their teams, the executives agreed.

“I’ve always been real about who I am and that creates trust,” said Melanie Foley, chief talent and enterprise services officer at Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, adding that authenticity is “incredibly important” to attracting and retaining top young talent.

Here are a few ways managers at all levels can be more genuine leaders, according to the summit’s participants:

Start with yourself

Fostering a more open and trusting team dynamic can be challenging, so leaders need their own solid foundation before asking others to join them in that process.

“Don’t go to your team unless you’re ready yourself,” said Pamela Manfredo Curtis, founder and president of Manfredo Curtis Associates, who has coached executives including General Motors CEO Mary Barra.

She emphasized that authentic leadership has to start with a search for personal purpose—at minimum a six-month journey, she said. Her executive coaching first takes leaders all the way back to their childhoods, with the goal of establishing core values and identifying the issues that may be blocking progress.

“What is the thing you are most bothered by?” Manfredo Curtis said. “If you confront whatever is the block then you can change your life.”

Ask for help

“Asking for help is the hardest part,” said Paula Schneider, CEO of the Susan B. Komen Foundation, but “no one can know everything. Ask for what you need and people will help you.”

If you don’t admit you need help, she said, the people around you will know it anyway and could begin to question your authenticity.

“No one is going to stay and work for someone they don’t trust,” said Diane Bryant, former COO of Google’s cloud computing business. The transparency and humility it takes to ask for assistance, she added, model the type of behavior healthy teams need.

“I do believe asking for help has been the key to my success,” Foley said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be too self-absorbed to give it either.”

Put empathy first

Bryant discussed how leadership styles have changed since her time at Intel, when the semiconductor company was a boys’ club ruled by brute force and bravado. Over the past decade, she’s seen leadership attributes shift toward “more compassionate, more authentic” styles. Empathy has become most important, she said.

“When you’re a minority, you spend a lot more time reading other people, thinking about what they need, how to make them comfortable,” Bryant said, referencing her position as a woman in the male-dominated tech industry. The experience of being a minority or encountering adversity makes managing with empathy easier, she said, but it’s a mindset all leaders can practice.

Business decisions become “very personal very quickly,” Bryant said. Empathy is required to consider how those choices will be perceived by employees.

“There’s a Dwight D. Eisenhower quote that I love,” Bryant said. “‘You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.'”

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