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Authenticity – An Essential Quality for Leadership

 

Without authenticity you can forget being an effective leader. Sound extreme? Over the last decade authenticity has emerged as one of the most critical aspects of leadership. In an article, Authenticity Paradox by Herminia Ibarra (Jan-Feb 2005 Harvard Business Review), the author says, “Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership.” However, she adds, “a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact.” Why? Because authenticity is not as simple as most people would like to think it is or assume that it is. Many people see authenticity as being “transparent” and therefore one must air ones every emotion and thought publicly. That kind of see-through self is not authenticity at all, in fact if you go about broadcasting your constant internal state it will end up undermining you for a couple of reasons.  First, nobody wants to hear all that stuff. For God’s sake they can hardly stand the noise generated by their own internal state. And second, what’s going on with you internally is not who you are; nor is it what you stand for and therefore it is not your authentic self. On one hand authenticity is certainly not broadcasting any and all utterances from one’s internal state on loudspeaker, and on the other hand it is being honest and straight on where you stand in any given matter. Perhaps more importantly, authenticity requires being aware of and owning one’s weaknesses.

Adding more specificity to authentic leadership Kevin Kruse (Forbes, May 2013) outlines four factors that are necessary for real and authentic leadership.

  1. Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine.Authentic leaders are self-actualized individuals who are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions. They also show their real selves to their followers. They do not act one way in private and another in public; they don’t hide their mistakes or weaknesses out of fear of looking weak. They also realize that being self-actualized is an endless journey, never complete.
  2. Authentic leaders are mission driven and focused on results. They are able to put the mission and the goals of the organization ahead of their own self-interest. They do the job in pursuit of results, not for their own power, money or ego.
  3. Authentic leaders lead with their heart, not just their minds. They are not afraid to show their emotions, their vulnerability and to connect with their employees. This does not mean authentic leaders are “soft.” In fact, communicating in a direct manner is critical to successful outcomes, but it’s done with empathy; directness without empathy is cruel.
  4. Authentic leaders focus on the long-term.A key tenet in Bill George’s model (CEO of Medtronic) is the company leaders are focused on long-term shareholder value, not in just beating quarterly estimates. Just as George did and as Bezos has done for years at Amazon, leaders realize that to nurture individuals and to nurture a company requires hard work and patience, but the approach pays large dividends over time.

Authenticity requires extraordinary courage ~ what Brene Brown calls “Standing your sacred ground”.  For most it is not an attractive challenge and seen as something to dodge or avoid. I recently introduced the notion of authenticity to a newly advanced group of high-potential, up and coming managers in a Fortune 100 company. Not only did they not like the whole idea of authenticity, they began making a case for why being inauthentic was a better way to go. They cited examples of how they couldn’t say certain things to their immediate supervisor and certainly couldn’t ever say “no”.  They were sure they had to act as if they were on board for something they clearly were not. They had to say “yes” to things they knew they weren’t going to do. And they justified this by saying “everyone else does it, why shouldn’t I?” That’s all under the guise of “you have to play politics in organizations”. While I could appreciate that they had developed a style for not rocking the boat by acquiescing, I asked them to consider that when they’re doing that it is fairly obvious to the others in the room that that is what’s going on, and that at some level they had entered into a truce to conduct and be part of a charade of looking good as opposed to being authentic. Instead I asked them to consider what it might be like to actually be authentic ~ to deal with the issue at hand, instead of just “going along”. Because there’s a good chance that if something doesn’t land right for them it’s not landing right for someone else as well. Furthermore, they’re skillful in bringing issues to the forefront which might allow for the real issues to get resolved, as opposed to what usually happens which is everyone walks out of the meeting having heard what they wanted to hear and at some level knowing that isn’t what’s going to happen ~ destined for failure.

This is what separates authentic leaders ~ authentic leaders stand in the future. They can see the consequences down the road of being inauthentic. And they address anything in the present that is likely to thwart or block the future. If they don’t believe something is possible or doesn’t make sense they are compelled to say so. It does not give them license to be disagreeable, but it does require them to say where they stand in the matter. Again quoting from Authenticity Paradox, “Being authentic doesn’t mean you can be held up to the light and people can see right through you.” It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand you make your true position and feelings in the matter known, and on the other hand you stay above the fray of sharing your every thought, consideration and concern. Another way to think of this is to be able to present a mature and realistic version of your position on something without necessarily having to expose each and every flaw, and at the same time being aware of one’s weaknesses and flaws is critical to being authentic and therefore being an authentic leader.

 

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You Can’t Transfer What You Don’t Have

Everybody’s heard the adage “Physician Heal Thyself”. It refers to having your actions match your speaking. For example someone giving advice and then acting consistent with that advice. When the speaking and behavior don’t match up it’s called hypocrisy. It would be like an overweight doctor telling the patient to lose weight for their health, and then later that day seeing that same doctor driving through a fast food chain restaurant getting “super-sized”.

Part of our work involves educating and developing competent mangers to become leaders. We do so by distinguishing what leadership really is. Leadership is all about character and modeling that character in your actions. Leadership stands on four foundational factors. They are: integrity, authenticity, being committed to something bigger than oneself, and being “cause” in the matter.

If you think about these four factors you can easily see how each of these become pillars for being a leader. The first factor, integrity, is pretty obvious. Without it nothing works. Integrity creates a foundation of reliability and trust. Second, authenticity has everything to do with being aware of who you hold yourself to be i.e., walking the talk. To do that you have to know your blind spots.  Third, being committed to something bigger than yourself is fundamental to leadership because if you’re all about you, you’re not believing in and demonstrating anything that people will find themselves identifying with, and therefore will follow. To be a leader requires followers. And lastly, and most challenging or difficult, is being “cause” in matter. That requires an existential leap of being the owner of, and taking responsibility for, things you probably didn’t even do. Yet if you are “cause” in the matter then you are willing to deal with it as though whatever happens is your personal responsibility.  Each of these components are key components. And leadership will not happen if any of those four is missing. Leadership depends on all four of those legs of character being solid and intact.

I often see things that are inconsistent with the character of leadership. Here’s a recent example:  The other night before the State of the Union Address I was scrolling Facebook, which I use for both entertainment and to stay connected with family and friends.  As I was scrolling I saw :

“State of the Union: INAUTHENTICITY & NO INTEGRITY.
Be prepared to be bamboozled newly, America.”

At first I was amused that someone took the time to warn us all. Thank you chicken little. But I saw who posted it I was somewhat taken aback because I know this person and know that this person teaches people about communication. They make their living teaching some of the same character values discussed above. And effective communication requires openness. This post did not reflect openness. In fact, it reflected a very narrow point of view that had been concluded before they heard a word of the State of the Union Address.  Communication is a key factor in organizational effectiveness. Most people would agree the following things are critical. 1 ~ walk into a situation with an open mind with no conclusions made, 2 ~ fully listen to what the other person has to say, and 3 ~ try not to prejudge the speaker. If you look at this post it has none of those things. Yet the person who posted it would claim to be an expert on coaching in the area of communication. What I read was clearly the opposite of that and doesn’t represent what this person espouses. It struck me that if this person could be that blind to how inconsistent what they are posting on social media is with what they teach ~ and I consider this person a fairly aware person ~ the same must be true for others, including myself. Said simply, what this person posted and what they teach suddenly appeared as pure hypocrisy. They spoke their formed opinion and had decided it was the truth. They presented it as if it was the truth. And that is inconsistent with what I know about communication.  I suppose we’re all guilty of that at some level. I chose not to add a comment to the Facebook post. I may contact the person directly to share my observation.

Here’s what I discovered for myself over the years in delivering transformational work in organizations ~ if you do not practice what you preach, if you do not walk the talk, there is no way you will be effective in being able to deliver that character to other people. They will be able to see through the inauthenticity like reading a 10-cent novel and will know that this is only “do as I say not as I do”. And nobody wants to sign up for getting conned at that level. Bottom line, if you’re going to preach it or teach it start with what you’re going to do to demonstrate that for yourself and model it to others. Walk the Talk.

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If It’s Not In Your Calendar – It Doesn’t Exist and It’s Not Going to Happen

People have “too much to do”. Ask anybody, they will tell you. There’s more to do than you could possibly ever get done. However, consider this ~ you’re only going to do what you’re going to do today. That sounds like it’s obvious, but most people don’t relate to what they have to do as if that’s the case. Their to do list is full of things they think they should do or that they “haff” to do, and they think that if they have it on the “list”, they’ll get to it. You’re not going to do all the things you “haff” to do just because it’s on a list. You’re really only going to do what you actually do. The key to what you’re going to do is knowing that actions take place in time. Anything you’re going to do takes a certain amount of time, therefore if it’s not on your calendar it’s not going to get done and it won’t happen. If you don’t schedule real time on your calendar to do the task, including scheduling an appropriate amount of time to do it, it’s almost certain that it won’t get done. Everyone has a long list of things they want to do, should do, and “haff” to do. But when you get into that list, all the things on the list are not necessarily the things you’re going to do. Most likely the only ones you will do are the ones you put on your calendar. What’s on the calendar has the highest likelihood of getting done.

The key to getting things done is to use your calendar, and then do what it says in your calendar. Have you ever noticed you never do what you don’t do and you also never do what you should do because it should be done? You only do what you do. And if you didn’t do it, there’s a good chance you didn’t plan the time to do it ~ the time to do it wasn’t allocated on your calendar. Plan and schedule the things you’re committed to doing ~ distinct from the things you want to do, should do and “haff” to do. No one has ever done what they want to do, should do, and “haff” to do unless they actually did it.

Giving up the myth of the unending list of things to do, which occur as a burden is a powerful step forward in productivity. Being selective and rigorous about what goes into your calendar is the key. When you schedule items be sure to allocate the proper amount of time for every aspect of the task. Otherwise it won’t get done. Though this won’t guarantee that the item will get done, it will significantly raise the likelihood if it’s “in existence”, i.e., in your calendar.

I am impeccable about my calendar. Given what’s on my plate, I have to be. Therefore, I have a practice in place. I schedule what I’m going to do and I give enough time to get it done. For example ~ I have a meeting at 10:00 AM downtown. On my calendar is “9:15-9:30 pre-meeting briefing”; “9:30 – 10:00 drive time to meeting (it only takes 15 minutes to get there); “10:00 -11:00 attend and participate in meeting”; 11:00 – 11:30 drive back to office”; “11:30 – 11:45 debrief meeting”. That gives me the time to 1) be briefed, 2) travel, 3) be seated (as opposed to rushing in at the last moment), 4) participate fully in the meeting, 5) return to the office and debrief my notes from the meeting, and 6) send a follow-up to the client. So while I am only going to a one-hour meeting, in reality ~ in time ~ it takes 2 and half hours to complete everything about that meeting. People don’t live like that.

I have been to thousands of meeting at hundreds of companies. More than half of those meetings start late, and people come in unprepared. They didn’t brief any preparation, and likely didn’t allow enough time to get to the meeting. They’re rushing in to get seated and they’re not prepared to start. The result is they waste others’ time. The meetings are ineffective. Your time is precious. And their time is precious. You get paid to produce results with your time. Relating to and managing your time is a valuable asset that will make you more effective and more productive. Use your calendar as your best tool for effectiveness and productivity. It is an essential skill for any manager and anyone that intends to be a leader. You’re only going to do what you do. And if it’s on your calendar there’s a much higher likelihood you’ll get it done.

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Staying the Course When the Going Gets Tough

Did you know that 70% of strategic initiatives in companies fail?  Why is this? Research from studies point to four key contributing factors.  The first is that people in the company don’t really know the vision and are not aligned with where the company needs to go. Second, they don’t know their specific role in delivering on what the company is trying to accomplish. Third, they don’t have a clear transparent score card that is kept up-to-date, accurate, complete and in use. And fourth, people are not being held accountable. In studying project management effectiveness, we have found that when those four components are solidly in place the likelihood of success goes up dramatically.  More importantly, what we’ve discovered with the initiatives that fail is it’s not that they’re missing a strong and believable plan, it’s that they didn’t build those four components into the design of the plan.

 

Additionally, we often find that project teams start with a plan but don’t stay committed to the plan.  Worse yet, if the project goes off course even slightly, they might just abandon the plan because they don’t trust the process and the thinking that went into it. This is a fatal error and a rookie mistake. Teams have to believe in their plan.

 

Sticking to the plan takes courage and discipline because it’s human nature to doubt and to want to change the plan when something unexpected comes along ~ which it almost always does.  More and more today we have a strong need for immediate gratification. We want to see almost instant success and when we don’t get it it triggers uncertainty and doubt so we question the plan. Successful project execution requires managers and teams to trust the plan and to follow the steps in the plan. That means taking the next step in the plan, and the next step, and the next step.  That is not to say that there isn’t room to make adjustments. General Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Only a fool goes into battle without a plan. But only an idiot follows the plan once the battle begins.” While you have to be able to make the right adjustments that all happens inside staying the course of your original approach.

 

Nick Saban, Head Coach at the University of Alabama since 2007 and the most dominant head coach in the country calls his plans on the field it “The Process”. And, for Saban “The Process” is all there is to winning and the way winning is accomplished.  Sometimes you start executing the plan and something happens. Then suddenly people abandon the plan. People stop trusting the plan and stop trusting the process.  They call an audible as a reaction to what they’re seeing in front of them. Saban’s success can be attributed to staying the course and trusting the process.  It almost doesn’t matter what you see at the line of scrimmage.  He tells his players, “Ignore the scoreboard. Don’t worry about winning. Just focus on doing your job at the highest level every single play and the wins will follow.”  He shows the player exactly how to do the move. He never sells out. When you believe in setting the right values and believe in your strategy one of the hardest things to do is to stick with it in the face of circumstances in the foreground that are not what you want or expect. Staying the course when the going gets tough takes courage.

 

That 70% of failed initiatives are a function of abandoning the plan. The value is in sticking to the plan. Believe in yourself. Believe in the plan.  Know in your gut that the plan is right and see it through to fulfillment. In organizations that give up on plans, and change mid-stream, a culture of not trusting occurs. People become disempowered. People think that management is presenting the “flavor of the month”, and think “this too shall pass”. It leaves a culture of people second guessing themselves and quitting on the design and plans. People sell out easily in that scenario.  There is enormous value in sticking with the plan.  Focus on staying the course ~ that’s what has people win.

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What Stops People From Being Extraordinary?


Most people don’t think about what it takes to be extraordinary; they consider themselves normal which translates to “ordinary”. Who doesn’t want to be normal? Interestingly, many people struggle with the notion of living up to their potential. If asked, most people would likely say they have not lived up to their potential. What is one’s potential? It’s what you envision for yourself in the future to accomplish and to be. What if one’s potential is to be “extraordinary” as in being an extraordinary human being? Can we accomplish that kind of living our lives or are we so engrained in notions about ourselves and self-imposed restrictions that it gets in our way of success?

Perhaps “extraordinary” is limited by what we see is possible and what we think we’re actually capable of. If we can see that something is doable and that it is indeed possible, and that we are capable ~ it’s considered potential for most people. It might also be fair to say we can never achieve our potential, because the moment we do we’d see yet another level to strive for. Like the horse drawn cart in an old movie with someone holding a carrot dangling out in front of a horse which keeps the horse moving toward the carrot ~ there’s more to achieve. Part of what keeps people from aspiring to be extraordinary is that our culture values fitting in and going with the flow. We are drawn to be complacent, stagnant and risk-adverse. If we see what’s possible as unreachable then potential could be considered unreachable ~ it’s just beyond our reach. Most people have limiting, conditioned beliefs that restrict their reach. We’ve listened to and bought into notions and ideas about ourselves that are, in many cases, unexamined.

I know someone who I consider very bright, talented and capable who works in the fashion industry. With the amount of talent this person has there is no apparent reason they shouldn’t do extremely well in their field. Yet they work in a job with a role that is probably a couple levels down from what they are capable of. On several occasions, they’ve requested my coaching and I’ve encouraged them to break out and create their own clothing line. They are really that talented, but they won’t do that. Their response is “I’m simply not ready”; “I don’t want to”; and “I’m not there yet”. At the same time this person complains about being undervalued, underutilized, under-appreciated and underpaid. They never have enough money. And this has been a long existing conversation. Clearly, they don’t see in themselves what I see in them. For them to accomplish the extraordinary would mean they’d have to give up their dearly held convictions about their limits and they would have to stop playing small – for most people that’s just too frightening.

Why don’t we reach for what we consider extraordinary? Why don’t we strive for and reach our potential? The simple answer to why we don’t strive for our potential or for extraordinary because “it’s too dangerous.” It’s dangerous to step all the way up, and all the way out there and possibly fail. And if we don’t step up then we’re not responsible on many levels ~ we stay safe from exposure emotionally, psychologically and financially. Additionally, we avoid the risk of failing. If you talk to most people they’ll have a well-constructed illusion that allows them to blame the circumstances for their level of achievement. When we attempt to go outside of our beliefs, our constraints, we enter that dangerous territory. It becomes dangerous when we are exposed, leaving us nowhere to hide and with no one to blame. It becomes very uncomfortable. Life is not designed for our success or for our comfort.

To reach our potential, to be extraordinary will likely mean being uncomfortable. If we don’t challenge our potential, our own being extraordinary, like Brando’s character Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront”, we may be left with the illusion, “I coulda’ been a contenduh.”