You Can’t Fake Real Authenticity

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.

Mentor Leaders – Lessons From School Teachers

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.

Developing A Service Culture – The Power of Servant Leadership

In 1938, while on ski trip in Switzerland, Nicholas Winton took a side trip to help the children of refugees. Nazi Germany had begun the Kristallnacht, a violent attack on Jews in Germany and Austria, and it had just reached Czechoslovakia. Winton set up a rescue operation for the children, filling out the required paperwork and raising money to fund foster homes for 669 children in Sweden and Great Britain. He managed to send all 669 of them away from Czechoslovakia on trains before the Nazis closed down the borders.

Winton told no one that he did this, not even his wife.

A person’s true wealth is what we give to others. The wealth of a culture is no different. A great organization is one that makes the world a better place because it exists, not simply because it outperforms the market by a certain percentage over a certain period of time. A great culture is defined by its capacity to bring value to all its stakeholders.

A culture of service is not created overnight. If you change yourself, you have already changed your workplace, so be happy with that until you become more skillful at manifesting service leadership and modeling it for others. Changing yourself is the first step to building a service culture.

  • A service culture starts with small, anonymous caring actions. Remembering to smile and say “please” and “thank you,” opening doors for people, offering encouragement instead of criticism, and practicing patience go a long way to inspire service around you. When it comes to building a service culture, the little things are the big things. While anonymously saving children’s lives is inspiring and noble, don’t neglect the small acts of caring.
  • Make service a decision. Service is an act, a verb, not a feeling, or a noun. Once you decide to serve, the quality of your life immediately begins to improve. Decide to be a giver rather than a taker, to choose service over self-interest. Caring about others is a decision.
  • Don’t mistake serving with pleasing. Serving is a commitment to identify and meet the needs of the people who depend on you. Pleasing attempts to meet the wants of others so they will be happy. There is a world of difference between the two. Pleasing breeds resentment, results in burnout, and turns you into a slave. Serving leads to freedom, self-respect, and wellbeing within you and around you.
  • Always do more than you get paid for. I learned this from my parents. Go the extra mile with a customer or with anyone that depends on you. In a world where we have come to expect a low standard of service, it’s easy to “wow” people by over-delivering on your promises. But the reward in extending yourself without pay is the inner satisfaction that comes by giving more than you expect back.
  • Like anything else involving effort, learning to serve takes practice. We have to get into the habit of standing with others in their challenges. Sometimes it is a simple matter that does not take us far out of our way – speaking a kind word to someone who is down, or spending a Saturday morning volunteering for a cause you believe in. At other times, helping involves some real sacrifice. “A bone to the dog is not charity,” Jack London observed. “Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” If we practice with small opportunities to help others, we’ll be in shape for times requiring real, hard sacrifices.
  • Disconnect to connect. In the “tyranny of technology,” the more connected we are electronically, the less connected we seem to be personally. E-mails and text messages are great for sending information, but generally not good for making connections. Electronic communication will never compensate for a failure to get out from behind your desk and develop face-to-face relationships. When you can’t meet with people directly, then pick up the phone.
  • Listen before you speak. “A closed mouth gathers no feet,” said a participant in one of my workshops. When you are tempted to tell someone what to do, instead start with the question, “What do you think you (or we) should do now?”
  • Set difficult – but not impossible – standards for yourself and others. Pride and self-respect don’t come from doing something easy. Serving does not mean taking the path of least resistance. Sometimes the best way to help people is to hold them accountable and accept no excuses.
  • Like all efforts, keep a commitment to service in balance. If we spend all of our time trying to help everyone, we end up neglecting our accountability to ourselves, our families, and to those who matter most in our lives. Like all virtues, service must be tempered and informed by a good measure of conscience.

Everywhere I go I meet people who, in one way or another, seize opportunities to do good for their fellow travelers. It’s truly inspiring to be around people who are committed to service. These are the true leaders in our lives, with or without a title. And like Nicholas Winton, they don’t do it for a reward or for recognition, but because it is the right thing to do. Anonymous service coming from a place of contentment has its own reward that the world cannot give.

How are you creating a service culture where you live and work?

Are You Connecting?

The other day a flight attendant asked me if I was connecting. This is a good question to ask yourself every so often. “Are you connecting?”

Life depends on connections, and the quality of your life depends on the quality of your connections. Every system depends on connections. Circulatory systems, nervous systems, organizational systems, ecosystems, family systems. Connection is to relationship what breathing is to life. If you can’t make a connection, not much else matters.

While we all, at some level, understand the importance of connection in our lives, what exactly does it mean to be connected? Like beauty, it’s hard to describe, but you know when it’s there. There’s a difference between communicating and being connected. “Everyone communicates,” writes the leadership guru John Maxwell, “but very few people connect.” Today, with all of the high-tech tools such as email, text messaging, Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter, we are certainly in better contact with each other, but are we better connected? High tech requires an equal high touch. With all this capacity to be in contact are we actually making contact? In this high tech, so-called “connected” world, do we feel more loved; more supported; or more at peace with others and ourselves? Do we live with a stronger sense of community? You can’t fully connect without looking a person in the eyes, hearing their voice, reaching their hearts, and knowing them as unique people with needs, values, and dreams. Technology is a great tool to stay connected; it’s not such a good tool to get connected.

Connections have a life of their own. You can actually stifle connections like you can a living organism, or you can breathe life into them.

Here are some conditions for connections to flourish:

  • Focus: Identify the ‘significant seven’ stakeholders in your personal and professional life. A stakeholder is a person who depends on you or upon whom you depend. You will have a list of ‘significant seven’ in both your personal and your professional life. Take an honest inventory of how connected you are with these people and how much personal investment is needed at this time. Don’t confuse peripheral relationships with significant relationships. Think about who will be with you at your deathbed.
  • Understanding: Your goal in connecting is understanding, not necessarily agreement. Connection isn’t the same as agreement. You can agree without connecting, just as you can connect without agreement. What are you doing to really listen to the people in your life? Empathy is a critically important aspect in connecting. To see a quick review of empathy take a few moments to look at a three minute video with the words of Brené Brown: www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
  • Accountability: Take accountability for your own emotions, reactions, and needs – in all your relationships. See all blame as a waste of time.  Ownership breeds openness. Take a careful inventory of yourself: Are you a person who can be counted on? Do people experience you as accountable? Do you take 100% responsibility for your life? Have you stopped hiding behind such statements as, “They need to listen better”? No, they don’t have to listen better; you need to communicate better. Nobody but you cares about the reason you let someone down.
  • Disconnect: You have to disconnect to connect. Turn off your devices at times during the day. Leave your cell phone in a drawer when you are with the important people in your life. Disconnect to connect. Create time and space to be together without interruptions. I find it interesting that in our society, the value of pets – who cannot use technology yet are completely present -is increasing along with the value we place on technology.
  • Rituals: Regularly scheduled dates, breakfasts, teas, and uninterrupted, unstructured time to hang out and just be with the important people in your life all allow connections to grow. Don’t worry about making it “quality” time. Sometimes it’s quality; sometimes it isn’t. Just be sure it is time. Connection is a four-letter word: t-i-m-e. If you want to know how your connections are, look at what is scheduled in your planner.
  • Be Vulnerable: Develop a habit of sharing your challenges, your fears, your dreams, or your insecurities with the important people in your life. Connections strengthen with vulnerability by sharing what is going on in your life. Conversations are the path to connection. But remember, connection doesn’t have to be big or dramatic. It simply has to be consistent and honest.
  • Presence: Listen carefully as you feel with people. What are their dreams? What matters to them? Don’t just deal with people. Feel with people. Before you can touch a person’s heart, you have to know what’s in it. The best present you can ever give another person is to be present in the present.
  • Slow down: Slow down in order to focus on the people you meet. Practice walking through crowds slowly. Whether clients, customers, or colleagues, take a few minutes to stop and listen. Everyone has needs, values, and dreams, and people generally like to talk about themselves. Focus on being interested rather than being interesting. I learned from my daughter who taking a course in agriculture that the most valuable tool on a farm is a five-gallon pail. Turn it upside down, sit on it, and observe the animals.
  • Tune in. Listen for messages that people send without talking. Words aren’t the only way to connect. We communicate with our eyes, our body language, our unspoken messages. Practice tuning in by spending time in nature or with animals. Once again, you have to slow down to tune in.
  • Authenticity: Make time to reflect and connect with the voice inside of you. You can’t connect fully unless you have a good sense of self-worth that comes from being true to yourself – in the service of others. As you live in accord with your values, your self-respect grows, and connections with others strengthens. Connection with others begins with a connection to yourself.

Humanizing Your Organization – The Power Of Caring Stewardship

On a recent errand to the hardware store I was between meetings and impatient, rushed, and abrupt with the cashier. She was trying her best but I was frustrated with having to wait through the long line up, and tense about missing my next appointment. It wasn’t long afterwards that I became uncomfortable with my interaction. I teach others to treat people as human beings, not as objects. But what did I do with this cashier? Just that. With one small mindful decision, I could have had an entirely different transaction. Instead of seeing this young woman as a cashier, with a small act of caring, I could have seen her as a fellow human being with hopes and feelings and a life away from work – perhaps a college student paying her way through school, or someone’s daughter or girlfriend. My response to her would have been gentler, kinder, and more supportive and caring.

I believe that it is these small actions and responses that reap the big results when it comes to creating the cultures where we work and live. In large systems, when people get treated as objects, or numbers, or cogs in a machine, they start acting like objects, and in turn treat others like objects, and you create a vicious, dehumanizing circle of low trust and disrespect, while losing contact with human touch and human potential.

Here are four ways to humanize your organizations and your life:

  • Before interacting with anyone, whether it’s a clerk, direct report, cab driver, boss, customer, or family member, take a moment to see beyond a role or label that reduces them to an object. Instead, try seeing them as a human being with feelings, needs, worries, values, and aspirations. Try this for one day and track the difference it makes in your interactions. Notice how when you change the way you look at people, the people you look at change. It’s about caring.
  • Maintain personal integrity. Self-respect comes from trusting yourself to keep a promise to yourself – even in the face of discomfort, insecurity, and disapproval. The result of greater self-respect is inevitably higher trust – of yourself and others. You can’t treat others with dignity and kindness unless you have it within you. When you are a better person, the world around you is better for it.
  • Create a little more space in your day. Had I taken responsibility to take a few things off my to-do list and arrived at the store with more space in my day, it would have been easier to be more patient and kind with this cashier. We all seem stressed with the demands we take on these days. It is irresponsible to make your lack of planning someone else’s suffering.
  • Bring gratitude to your life. Gratitude transforms coldness into kindness, impatience into peace, self-interest into service, and entitlement into commitment. Gratitude gives you the freedom to grant grace to yourself and others, especially when we are all under pressure. Gratitude changes everything.

When you take ownership for your part of the environment where you work and for your relationships, and thus committing to making the world a better place by your presence, you are what I call the Cultural Stewards. Like leadership, stewardship is not a title or position. It is a presence – a decision. Stewardship is nothing less than deciding to be the trusted guardians of the organization and its people, products, and experiences. Traditionally, stewards were entrusted with the care of the estate while the baron was in absentia, and were thus charged with the health, vitality, and survival of the estate (even the care of the baron’s own family). Stewardship, therefore, is no lightweight title. Taking this kind of ownership – without blame, demands, guilt, or criticism – breathes new life into the environments where you spend your life, and makes those places a whole lot more enjoyable.

Employee Engagement Surveys – Not The Whole Story

I’m not against employee engagement surveys. I’m just not in favor or our over-reliance on them for an accurate picture of an organizational culture. Reading employee engagement surveys is like reading a newspaper or watching the news. It’s interesting, there’s an element of truth in them, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s more of a photograph, a small spectrum of what’s actually happening. Surveys turn your organization into a noun, while conversations make culture a verb, a living breathing entity. Surveys give you a sense of what’s going on, but you always have to go further if you want an accurate picture. Here are some suggestions for using surveys more effectively and appropriately:

  1. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership. While thorough surveys provide excellent data and get you started with a snapshot of your culture, don’t rely on surveys alone to do the job. You also have to get out of your office, wander around, and be in touch with people. Ask them how they’re doing and what they need. Then listen to what they say. If you use the excuse that “people aren’t honest with you when you do that,” that’s a good indication you haven’t been out of your office enough to build trust. To be committed to culture, leaders need to be out of their office about half of the time or they just aren’t leading.
  2. Shorten your surveys. People are getting surveyed out. I’ve seen employees answer low because they are angry about having to do so many surveys! Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne (www.eepulse.com) is designing employee engagement and 360 Feedback surveys that take three minutes to complete. Dr. Welborne believes that you can get pretty much all the information you need in about three minutes. She might just be on to something.
  3. You don’t have to survey everyone to get an accurate picture. Television ratings are not determined by calling every single person watching TV. Pick a good cross section of people to survey and give the rest a break. Switch it up so you aren’t surveying the same people every time.
  4. Don’t mistake climate for culture. Climate is how people feel about the organization and their work (what you get from an employee engagement survey). Culture is what causes them to feel that way. Employee engagement surveys may tell you what the climate is, but they don’t necessarily get to the culture. Every culture has both the “visible” culture and the “real” culture. The real culture is what people talk about when the boss isn’t there. If you want to find out about the real culture, don’t send surveys to your employees. Send surveys to your employees’ spouses or best friends. Culture is measured by what people talk about when they get home from work. Ideally, we want to build a level of trust so people would have the same conversation whether the boss is there on not. You can only get the real culture by getting into the cafeteria and the hallways and listening to what’s going on, and more importantly, why it’s going on.
  5. Never ask a question about something you don’t know how to fix and you aren’t prepared to fix. Every survey question implies a promise that you are going to take action based on the answers you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. I like Mark Murphy’s (Leadership IQ) experiment as an example of how this works. Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Then ask your spouse if they want some and when they say “yes” just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Don’t use surveys to abdicate leadership accountabilities. You must live your values, and have a way to ensure that this happens at every level of your organization. Your actions as leaders define your culture more than your value statements do. Actions really do speak louder than words. The goal is to align your actions and your value statements. The more you connect with people and really listen to what they say in a variety of ways, the greater your chances of bringing your claim and your reality into alignment.
  6. Remember that culture is a shared responsibility. Culture isn’t something that you do for or to people. Culture is something you create together. We institutionally deny the fact that each of us – through our perceptions and our choices – is actually creating the culture that we so enjoy complaining about. Deciding that I have co-created the world around me – and therefore I am the one to step into healing it – is the ultimate act of accountability. Check out my website www.irvinestone.ca/assessments for an instrument that assesses both the manager’s and the employee’s responsibility for creating a workplace worth working in – using and adapting the Gallup Q12 Employee Engagement Survey.