The Talent Poole

Are you a genuine leader?

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

Meet the leadership expert behind 'The Talent Poole' column as he talks on the importance of finding yourself and leading with authenticity
Meet the leadership expert behind 'The Talent Poole' column as he talks on the importance of finding yourself and leading with authenticity

Related tags Leadership

Jon Poole shares his own experiences and reflects on the views of some of his past guest leaders, as he explores what it means to be an authentic leader.

It’s all about trust

Authenticity in food production is all about consumer confidence - ultimately, consumers need to have total trust that what they are buying and consuming is both genuine and safe. In the same way, a leader needs to build trust in those they work with. They will only gain trust and confidence if they are able to present their genuine, real self at all times.

Given how closely most leaders work with their teams, customers and suppliers, it would be almost impossible to put on an alternative persona, pretending to be someone they are not.

Jackie Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project was of the same view, when I interviewed her last year​: “I believe in leadership through transparency – I probably share a lot more detail than many others do, but I believe this creates a climate of trust which, in turn, encourages people to be more open with me about themselves.”

Strong and clear personal values

A key element of being authentic is being clear about who we are and what we stand for. We all have, and work to, a set of personal values – they form an essential and unique aspect of our personality, creating the ‘rulebook’ by which we live all our lives. Interestingly, most of our values are unconscious – we tend to make decisions about everything we do based on our values, largely without consciously referring to them.

In leadership, not only do we need to be clear on our values, but it also helps to communicate our key values to those around us. This was something Geoff Eaton, chairman of Butchers Pet Care was very clear about​: “For me, I believe in four key values: authenticity – be yourself; humility – never think you are better than you are; respect – always challenge but challenge respectfully: and courage – you need be able to see over the hill what others can’t see.”

When those working around us understand our values, it provides reassurance and leads to a more consistent leadership approach which others can learn to depend on.

Being yourself, not someone else

Most of us will, at some time, have thought to ourselves ‘I wish I could be more like them’ in terms of someone’s leadership qualities or style. It is, of course, good to be able to recognise and admire good leadership in others. It may also be possible to learn specific skills and ways of working from observing others. However, what is not possible is to ‘be like them’ by trying to emulate their personality.

We are all unique in terms of our personality, this being a combination of genetics, our traits, values, learned behaviours and lived experiences.

To try to mimic another, highly successful leader can never work because it would only ever result in a weak impersonation of that person and so would be very quickly seen as inauthentic. Take, as a simple example, someone who is naturally more introverted – it would be unrealistic to try to emulate someone who is more extrovert.

Of course, the reality is hugely more complex and nuanced than this, covering all aspects of personality, from decision-making and creativity through to communication and influencing styles.

Knowing yourself

If you are to be your ‘authentic self’ as a leader, you firstly need to understand and have confidence in yourself and your capabilities (as well as your areas of weakness). The most obvious aspects of your personality to assess are your knowledge and skills. You will probably already have quite a good appreciation of these based on your own self-awareness.

Where it gets interesting is around understanding your behaviours and traits. By having an accurate appreciation of your behavioural strengths, you can have confidence when faced with situations where you need to draw on these.

Chris Kong, chief executive of Better Nature reflected on this​: “I think my ability to deal with setbacks has evolved over time and this comes down to experience. It’s about having more trust in my own ability and having a strong network around me.”

Conversely, if you are conscious of specific behavioural weaknesses, it’s important to recognise these and learn to manage them. From my own experience, I know that I am not strong in terms of attention to detail – as many of my past colleagues will, I am sure, attest to!

Knowing, and openly admitting to this, is extremely useful. People know not to rely on me for checking detail. But being conscious of this weakness means I know to seek out others who are far better than me in this respect.

Let others know you

Trying to cover up your weaknesses fools no-one and can be very unhelpful – working so closely with your team, most people will quickly get to know your strengths and weaknesses regardless of your efforts to conceal them. By opening up to others, you will generally find that, not only will they be able to better support you, they will also start to be more open with you.

Of course, it’s more than just what you say to others, it’s also the way you come across. Ian Noble, senior RDQ director at Mondelez recognised this​: “You’re building a personal contract between yourself as a leader and each member of the team. You build it personally; that needs to be personal – recognising that communication is verbal and non-verbal.”

Psychometric assessment

Many of the more deep-seated aspects of our personalities, such as behaviours and predispositions, are not naturally in our consciousness and can generally only be revealed through detailed assessment or through psychometric testing and feedback.

Most leaders I work with will admit to having been through some form of psychometric assessment during their careers, but this will have often been as part of a recruitment or promotion process. These tend to be relatively cursory and, critically, focused on matching your profile for a future role. As a result, candidates tend to want to put their ‘best’ profile forward for the role, so it doesn’t necessarily reflect an accurate or authentic picture of their personality.

To be of true value, a psychometric assessment needs to be conducted solely with personal development as the focus. This allows the individual to be totally honest with their responses and, thus, lead to a realistic profile of their true personality.

Expend less energy

While I appreciate it takes courage to open up and be more authentic, it can also lead to less stress and anxiety. It takes mental energy and agility to have to try to be someone you’re not​ – constantly keeping up a pretence and trying to hide one’s weaknesses. Being clear and open about your strengths and weaknesses is so much easier and will, ultimately, encourage people to support you… which can’t be a bad thing.


Jon Poole is managing director of Step Change Development. He specialises in organisational development with a particular focus on leadership competency and development and career development in the food sector.

Jon has a particular interest in encouraging the pipeline of talent for the next generation of food leaders and has spoken on this subject and been a panellist at many conferences and events.

From 2010 to 2022, Jon was chief executive of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST).

Alongside his consultancy, Jon is chair of SALSA, the third-party supplier assurance scheme for small and micro businesses in the UK, and a long-standing judge for the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards (FMEA).

He has written three books on leadership, business performance coaching and career planning.

If you enjoyed this column, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for our monthly edition of The Talent Poole. You may also find our article on how to combat networking nerves​useful.

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