In the last few weeks, the concept of authenticity has come up numerous times. Authentic leaders have an easier time earning respect, as I shared in a webinar yesterday. Authentic leaders are more approachable, as I offered to a coaching client. Authenticity affords you approachability, less difficulty and more energy, as I imply in any Make Difficult People Disappear keynote, book, or course. It’s all about being real, yet the challenge it seems is that many aren’t sure what that means or how to achieve this elusive way of being. What does it mean to be real? How does one achieve authenticity and what’s so important about it anyway? Well, let’s see…
Without Sharp Edges
I’ve always loved the adult lessons in children’s stories and rhymes. From Dr. Seuss to Looney Tunes, so much to learn is there for those paying attention. One such lesson on being “real” comes from the Velveteen Rabbit. Author Margery Williams depicted the conversation between the Skin Horse and the Velveteen Rabbit, as he asked what it meant to be real and if it took a long time. The skin horse answered:
‘It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”
Are you carefully kept or complete with sharp edges? These are strong indicators of a lack of leadership authenticity. In this analogy, being real would include being even keeled, only mildly responsive to stress, and so comfortable in one’s own skin that outside appearances are not the top priority. Those leaders who embrace this definition of Real are a delight to be around. They are contagious, magnetic, and the people to whom you go for wise counsel, knowing they will always be genuine and truthful, and not likely to perceive your questions as hurtful. They are strong in their convictions, don’t break easily, and have the perspective of someone with experience. Is this you? Is this how you lead? Perhaps another example is needed.
Standing in Your Truth
The popular TV show Scandal is one I must admit I record. It’s exciting to watch the harrowing ups and downs of now famous character Olivia Pope and recently, her current ‘scandal’ has her confidence hanging by a very thin rope. Yet the recurring theme, from which she counsels others and now must embrace herself, is standing in her truth. What this means is doing the right thing, no matter what others think; saying what is real and candidly sharing how one feels. Being that her character only exists on TV the philosophy is a bit of pipe dream and certainly not something done consistently. Olivia is not real. Your life is real, not TV. Standing in your truth, when you’re an authentic leader, must be done with consistency, not merely when the need arises or political strategy suits you. Standing in your truth means you “be yourself” and you “become real” by believing there is value in how you feel, despite what others may also feel. Standing in your truth when leading could equate to being honest with your boss about your perspective on a policy. It could mean that when leading you set boundaries about your availability, protecting family time or other space you need. Are you standing in your truth as a real person who leads?
Confidently being is how I describe authenticity. When a leader is comfortable in his own skin, without being easily offended by someone else’s opinion, he is confidently being open. When a leader communicates a strong recommendation, she is confidently being assertive. When a leader is able to leave a position that does not use his natural strengths, he is confidently being decisive. When a leader is able to say no or set a boundary on how accessible she is on the weekends, she is confidently being clear on her priorities. These are not statements of what a leader should or shouldn’t’ do, merely examples of what confidently being might mean for you. Are you confidently being you? Sometimes it takes faking it for a while to see that the real you has been hidden, but once you identify what is uniquely you, it changes your reality, energy and authenticity. Confidently being authentic is perhaps the most essential element of being a real leader.
Rabbits and TV snippets aside, many leaders have shared with me the value of finding their own authenticity. When it’s not accessible or hidden, employees feel it. That feeling erodes trust, inhibits respect, and causes team members to assume you operate with a set of mixed messages. While it would be easy for me to simply say “be the real you” or simply “get real”, it does take courage to initiate and maintain. The question of the day is then, perhaps, are you doing what it takes to show them the real you and confidently be you as you lead those who work with you?