“Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny. It is the light that guides your way.” – Heracleitus
In my lifetime I’ve done a great deal of reflecting on the question, “How do you define success?” Now that I’m entering my sixth decade, I am coming to realize there is success, and then there is, what Fred Kofman (author of Conscious Business) would describe as, “success beyond success.” The first is outer success. The second is authentic or inner success: success beyond success.
If you set a goal (e.g. to win a game, get a promotion, make a certain amount of money) and you achieve that goal, you are successful. This is outer success.
Inner success is something quite different. Inner success is the kind of person you became and the contribution you made to the world in pursuit of your goal. Inner success is independent of whether you actually achieve your goal.
Outer success is what you put in your résumé. Inner success goes in your eulogy. Outer success is fleeting. It lasts only until the next record is broken or the next gold medal is won or the next headlines are written. Inner success on the other hand, is far more sustainable and lasting. Inner success can last a lifetime or longer when it leaves a legacy. Outer success might make you happy, but inner success brings you joy. Inner success is ultimately what fills you up and gives you self-worth, self-respect, and sustained confidence.
In workshops, I often use an exercise where I have participants think of three people they admire. They could be people who have made a positive difference in the world, like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, or people who have made a personal contribution to their life such as a grandmother or teacher. My choices would be my wife, my parents, and Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist.
There’s a second part to the exercise. They are to think of the character traits that make each of their chosen people admirable to them. In my case, I admire Val for her capacity to unconditionally love and accept me with all my flaws, which has helped shape the person I am today. I admire my mother for her wisdom and my father for his compassion, and I admire Viktor Frankl for his courage, resilience, and perseverance. From his harrowing survival story emerged a philosophy of living that is centered on the pursuit of purpose, and of finding meaning amidst deep anguish.
Finally, I ask the workshop participants to compare these fine and admirable traits with the typical success markers in our culture, the kind of character traits featured, say, in People magazine. After using this exercise with literally thousands of people, I have yet to observe anyone choose a person for the character qualities most frequently popularized in magazines and online such as as fame, beauty, power, youth, or wealth. It’s fascinating that, culturally, we gravitate unconsciously to things that ultimately mean so little to us. There is a difference between success that is defined by the world’s standards, and real, inner success that is defined by the strength of our character.
It is fine to have a goal of outer success, but from an inner perspective, the purpose of having that goal is not to achieve the goal. The purpose of a goal of outer success is to inspire yourself to become the kind of person it takes to achieve it. Then, whether you achieve outer success or not, you can still have inner success, or success beyond success. This is authentic success: living your life in accord with your values – in the service of others.
I’ve noticed that the most successful leaders I’ve met in organizations aren’t necessarily pursuing success, yet success comes to them. They aren’t after the next promotion or to get ahead in the organization because they are too busy bringing value and serving the people around them. While they undoubtedly have goals and intentions for their future, their focus is developing and using their strengths and unique talents to bring value to the organization today.
Take a few minutes and be inspired by two female softball players who demonstrate inner success. It speaks to the adults in their lives, their family and the coaches and mentors along the way who instilled a strong sense of character, compassion and a moral compass.
Any parent who has ever said no to a child understands that leadership is not about being popular. You have to be secure within yourself to do the right thing – for the benefit of the greater whole. A recent consulting project reminded me of this. A CEO was brought in to a failing company eighteen months previously to bring it out of the red and make it profitable. The former CEO was known throughout the organization as “Mr. Popular.” Everyone loved him. He was their “buddy.” Expense cheques were freely approved. There was no such thing as budgets. And, like the inattentive captain of the Costa Concordia, he was driving the company into the rocks of bankruptcy. While all the partying and love fest was going on, most of his employees had no idea where he was taking them. Thankfully the board caught it and dismissed him before disaster struck.
The new CEO, a brilliant, accountable, focused leader had to be “less than warm” in her approach to turning the company around. Many of her employees did not understand where she was coming from, and perceived her as cold, distant, and uncaring compared her to her predecessor. Like a courageous parent committed to accountability, I heard her say to her employees, in no uncertain terms, “Trust me. This is for the good of this company and the employees – in the long run.”
Now that the company has turned the corner through her leadership, it is obvious that many of these employees would not even be employed today under the former “popular” regime. Yet for sometime, the new CEO has been perceived by some of her direct reports and managers as “unapproachable,” “disconnected,” and “removed from her people.” They had no idea that, by saving the organization and the employees’ jobs along with it, she was actually very caring.
How do you become respected and liked and still hold others accountable? This is a question that every leader must grapple with. It is also a question that has application for every employee. Here are seven points to consider as you wrestle with this question:
- Being a leader is not for people who need to be liked or need to be popular. At times, you have to be willing to stand alone with the courage of your convictions.
- Even though you don’t need to be liked as a leader, if you aren’t liked by at least most of your people – you’ll have difficulty making impact in the long term.
- As an employee, some things are not as they appear. Few bosses come to work with a motive to mess up the place. While there certainly may be poor leadership at times, unless you are a psychopath, all behavior comes from a positive intent. Before judging, take time to discover the underlying motive of your boss’s behavior and be patient.
- Because leadership is a presence, not a position, everyone in an organization is a potential leader. You can be a leader today by deciding to be what you expect from others. If you want more compassion from others, start by being more compassionate to
- Leadership is ultimately about caring, but you can’t always count on it appearing as such. When you are fostering accountability by holding the line on a principle, you may come across as anything but compassionate. Accountable people accept this.
- You must be driven by a motive of caring even when you are holding others accountable – caring about people, caring about your work, and caring about the organization as a whole. While caring and accountability won’t always be in balance, you need to know when it’s out of balance and how to get it back.
- You don’t become liked by pleasing people and giving them what they want. That’s merely a fix that passes with the tides of popularity. You get to be liked by letting go of your need to be liked, serving people by being committed to giving them what they need, earning respect from living in alignment to your principles, and then by being humble and authentic.
Now that this CEO has begun to turn the company around, she’s concentrating on turning her relationship with her employees around. In order to accomplish what she did, she needed to be tough, and while her resolve remains firm, she can turn her attention to connecting with others and showing her caring side. She’s working at being vulnerable by communicating her intentions and exposing a little more of her humanness, both of which are vital to connecting with others. She’s reminding herself to be more kind and approachable, and lightening up a bit. As a result, people are actually starting to like her, and in the process, she is earning the trust and respect of her key people.
A few years ago, in The New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom denounced the overuse of authenticity as a claim for success in her article, “Authentic? Get Real.” She cited politicians and television personalities who describe themselves as authentic, declaring that they owe their success to qualities of which authenticity was most important. US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann said, “I’m a real person”, while TV talk show host Anderson Cooper says, “I’ve always tried to just be authentic and real”.
Movie stars and politicians aren’t the only ones to hop on the authenticity bandwagon to promote themselves. According to Rosenbloom, “legions of marketers and social networking coaches are preaching that to succeed online – on Twitter, Facebook, Match.com – we must all ‘be authentic!'” I’ve even heard of organizations running ‘authenticity programs’ for their leaders, training them how to be ‘more authentic.’
In a world of corporate and political betrayal, it’s a no-brainer that authenticity is compelling. But like everything valuable, we have created counterfeits. We have now learned how to fake being authentic.
Authenticity is like leadership. You can’t declare yourself as ‘authentic’ any more than you can declare yourself a ‘leader.’ You aren’t a leader until someone else decides that you are. And you aren’t authentic until someone else decides that you are. It’s in the eyes of the beholder. While leadership in a confused society is also compelling, you can’t use leadership as a way to promote yourself; you have to earn it. You can’t train someone to be authentic anymore than you can train someone to be a leader. As valuable as the tools are that you might acquire in a ‘leadership training’ program, leadership is not about the tools; leadership is about the tool user. Authenticity is not a method to influence; it’s an outcome of living your life over time with integrity and a commitment to service. Authentic leaders are seen as great leaders, not because they set out to be authentic, but because they set out to be better at being themselves. They don’t usually even have a motive to be a better leader. They want, instead to be a good person. Good people with leadership capacity make good leaders. It’s that simple and that difficult.
Living authentically is not the road frequently traveled. I have found it to be so much easier to mimic others when I’m not sure of myself, to conform when I am afraid, or to put my faith in others when I don’t trust myself. Living authentically has, at times, meant facing my own suffering and self-deception. As a consultant, I want to be perceived by my clients as having it all together, always having the right answers, and being intelligent, kind, and inspirational. As noble as these goals are, my ability to influence comes in my humanness, to accept and be where I am, for a genuine connection is made in that humanness and a seed of trust is planted. It’s more important to be who I am than to be who I think you want me to be in order to be liked.
Here are three lessons I have learned about authenticity:
First, authenticity takes time to develop. You can’t turn it on like a light switch. Developing your authentic self is a life-long journey. It takes conscious work. My own path to discovering and expressing my voice in a world that seems to be trying to make me just like everyone else is one of my greatest challenges.
Secondly, authenticity must serve the greater good. Like beauty, authenticity brings value to the world by its very presence. Notice that those you would regard as truly ‘authentic’ choose service over self-interest. They don’t ‘try’ to be authentic (in fact, most authentic people would not even describe themselves as such); they use their gifts for a purpose greater than their own self-serving desires.
Third, authenticity is internal in nature. Its rewards are primarily internal. You can’t measure its value in terms of the world’s standards such as fame, financial success, or political achievement. Living authentically often means seeking solitude away from the world’s approval and risking the rejection of others. Those who accept this path of seeking to live honestly, connecting to, and living in alignment with their true self discover an inner peace, clarity and connection that cannot come from society.
My own reverence for life, a requirement for living authentically, was set early in life. In the words of one of my mentors, the world-renowned family therapist, Virginia Satir, “Plants [or people] never grow better because I demand that they do so or because I threaten them. Plants [and people] grow only when they have the right conditions and are given the proper care.” Finding the right place and the proper nourishment for plants – and people as well – is a matter of continual investigation and vigilance. You can’t fake real authenticity. It’s a life-long journey.
I always love working with teachers. Like every profession, there are good teachers and bad teachers, but I have learned a lot over the years about leadership from having teachers in my leadership development programs. In Oprah’s final show, she introduced and praised her grade four teacher, an early “liberator” who made her feel valued. Think about your own teachers. There are those who just meet the curriculum requirements and help you get into the next grade, while others inspire you, build your character, and mentor you to be a better person, not just a better student. And think about the bosses you’ve had. Some merely help you get your work done, some get in your way, but some change your life. Some help you be a better employee, while others help you be a better person.
How is it that some teachers are merely teachers, but others are leaders, mentors, and life-changers? And how is it that some bosses are merely bosses, while others influence and build your moral fiber, model and teach new attitudes and behaviors, and create a constructive legacy for future generations? It is this distinction that makes a “mentor leader.”
While there are many leadership practices that amplify one’s impact on others, “mentor leaders” possess three qualities of leadership that exemplify their presence:
1) Leaders who make a difference are authentic. They are human, and humble, and present. They also aren’t perfect or attempt to create an illusion of perfection. To impact others, you can’t be phony. People will see right through it. By being who they are, they create a space where others are inspired to also be authentic. Authentic people love what they do and are open to learning about themselves. They are inspired by a purpose and a passion and as a result, they inspire others.
2) Leaders who make a difference are accountable. They can be counted on and don’t make promises they aren’t prepared to keep. They create a place where blame is viewed as a waste of time. They have high standards, both for themselves and those around them. It’s inspiring to be around people you can count on. You aren’t a leader until someone says you are, and you won’t earn the credibility to influence and be trusted if people can’t count on you.
3) Leaders who make a difference care. They care about their work and they care about the people around them. They understand that leading is largely a matter of caring about people, not manipulating or controlling them. Leaders who care measure their success by the trust they build and the value they bring to the lives of others. They are committed to serve. Mentor leaders know that their work is a means to a higher end and put people above products and processes. It’s about changing lives.
Great leadership goes well beyond merely “getting the job done,” and cannot be reduced to technique or position or power. Great leadership inspires others and comes from the strength of one’s identity and integrity – their presence. When teachers possess this presence and inspire it in their students, we are truly fortunate to have them in our lives. The same goes for the leaders in our life and in our work who can help us reach unimaginable potential.