I learned from Jerry Weinberg, author of The Secrets Of Consulting, that if you want to stay single you should look for the perfect mate. So, I would postulate that trying to be perfectly authentic will actually make you inauthentic. Earning the trust and credibility that comes from authenticity isn’t about trying to be perfect. Instead, it’s about honesty. Let me illustrate with an example:
While working with an executive on how to be a more authentic in his leadership, he told me about a meeting where he had to deliver some tough news about his team’s performance. “I was honest with them, but I could see them pulling away and withdrawing. I knew that my honesty was disrespectful, and I was losing credibility. But I also knew that if I held back my frustration with their performance would increase and I wouldn’t be doing my job as a leader. How can you be more authentic in this kind of scenario?”
Being authentic is an entirely human journey, full of paradoxes, uncertainty and tension. It doesn’t mean getting it all perfect, working from a script, or having a formula. Instead, being authentic means accepting the paradox along with the tension. Authenticity requires both honesty and respect, and a willingness to wrestle with these sometimes opposing forces. If you are completely honest and call someone stupid, you would be totally disrespectful. On the other hand, you can be so respectful and polite that you are dishonest.
Struggling with this paradox between honesty and respect is an indication of authenticity. It means you are honest enough with yourself to step back and get some self-awareness. You don’t have to tell people you are wrestling with this kind of paradox because your humility will show through. Be assured that disrespectful, demeaning leaders with no emotional intelligence do not consciously wrestle with these kinds of paradoxes. The fact that you are grappling with them and seeking ways to better lead and communicate is an indicator of authenticity. Authenticity is about being human. It’s not about being perfect.
Here are three ways to be a more authentic leader:
- Be open for feedback. When the 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness. Seeking self-awareness is an indicator of authenticity. Certainly a 360 degree feedback tool is valuable, but asking directly for feedback is also important. “What do you want me to stop, start, continue doing in our relationship?” “On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate the quality of our relationship in the past year?” “What would take it up a notch?” These are helpful ways to get feedback. You don’t have to agree or disagree with what people tell you. You simply say thank you and take one or two areas that you will commit to improve. You can also get feedback from yourself, by taking time for self-reflection. Ask yourself how you can improve. Take an honest inventory every so often. Inauthentic people have no interest in getting to know themselves better.
- Realize the value of caring. In the ten years that Doug Conant served as CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, he turned the languishing business around by putting the focus back on the people who worked there. Over the course of his time at Campbell Soup, Conant was said to have written 30,000 handwritten thank you notes to his employees, amounting to about ten notes a week. “I let them know that I am personally paying attention and celebrating their accomplishments,” Conant said in an HBR podcast. After working in the leadership development field for more than thirty years, I have learned that good leadership is fundamentally about making contact, building personal connections, and helping people to grow and flourish. It’s fundamentally about caring. Good leadership means you go the extra mile to care about your organization. You care about the people you serve. And you care about the work you do and the contribution you make.
- Work with a guide. There’s an old Sufi saying that says, “The eye can’t see itself.” Just as a mirror reflects our face back to us, mentors, coaches, trusted advisors, therapists, confidants show us that which is so close to us we can’t see it. If you are serious about uncovering your authentic leadership, find a guide to help you through unfamiliar territory. Ask for help. While authenticity is a lonely journey, it can’t be done alone. The important thing is that others who have some experience with what you are facing can offer a supportive, accepting, accountable space to heal and learn. Guides help you step back and get some perspective. They support you, challenge you, and help ask questions like, “What’s going on here?” “What are you up against?” “What can be learned?” “What are your options?”
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.