A friend of mine recently sent me an article by Jesse Sostrin called Who You Are Is How You Lead. Jesse suggests that “[Leadership] is the simple act of being who you are in the company of others.” I think in our search for authenticity, we focus on the first half of this statement…let me figure out and get comfortable with who I am. And, that is an important endeavor.
The risk, though, is that we pay less attention to the second half of the statement, “…in the company of others.” How do we step into our authenticity in service of those we have the honor of working with? For example, let’s say that I’m a very candid person at heart. If I’m only paying attention to the first half of the equation, “being who you are…” then I may feel emboldened to be even more candid. What happens, though, if a person I work with is less comfortable with being confronted by the unvarnished truth? As a leader, how do I recognize the other person’s relationship to candor so that I can say what needs to be said in a way that it is able to be taken in?
Another way to look at this is that my privileged position of power should not allow me to be authentic at my team members’ expense. Let me share an exchange that illustrates the example above. Let’s say that I have a high-potential direct report that I want to develop and, as such, I give them an opportunity to present to the executive team. I explain that they can practice the presentation at our next departmental meeting (in front of their peers). During this practice presentation, I make comments such as,
“You’re going too far into the weeds. You need to think like an executive. Keep to the big picture.”
“What’s the point you’re trying to make? You need to be more concise. You’re going to lose them.”
And, let’s say that this employee is conflict-avoidant and defers to authority. So, in this case, I may not even have a sense in this practice session that my behavior is negatively impacting their performance. All I see is them getting quieter and quieter and taking notes. I may even think, “This is a good thing. They are taking my feedback seriously.”
Imagine my surprise when a short time later this high-potential employee resigns citing this exchange among others where they felt my feedback was too blunt. The reality is that they should not have to “toughen up” or pretend to be okay with direct feedback in service of my authenticity. Rather, as the leader, it is important that I am not only aware of my own authenticity but that of those that I work with. In this case, I would call it candor in context; knowing my audience, and adapting appropriately.
As John C. Maxwell is quoted as saying, “We cannot lead anyone farther than we have been ourselves.” In other words, I cannot ask you to be authentic and vulnerable if I am not willing to do it. I do agree with Sostrin that we must begin by understanding ourselves — and that the work of a leader does not end there. Leaders strive to bring out the best in others by enabling their team members to be the best version of themselves as well.