I’ve realized a great lesson about leadership: I’m best when I’m being me. Every leader faces a temptation to project a persona rather than be themselves. They think that in order to maintain the confidence of their team, they must appear faultless, flawless, and ever wise. Yet most organizations need authentic leadership, not perfect ones.
I’ve often been tempted to pretend I’m someone else. When I arrived at Catalyst a decade ago, I was struck by how cool everyone seemed to be. The team produced sleek graphics and logos. Creativity flowed like a river, buffeted by a keen awareness of the day’s trends. Likewise, the Catalyst community is noticeably innovative, hip, and dare I say, fashionable. Skinny jeans are ubiquitous at our events, but I’m more comfortable in khaki Carhartts. In fact, my legs are so fat that every pair of jeans I wear is skinny, but that’s an entirely different matter. My V-necks reveal my Hanes undershirt—I’m sure a fashion no-no. Many participants spike or sweep their hair according to the latest styles, but I don’t even have hair. In many ways, Catalyst is everything I’m not.
Know who you are. If you try to be all things to everyone, then you’ll end up being nothing to everyone. #CatalystLeader
But our organization doesn’t need a leader with cool hair and skinny jeans. They need someone they can trust and follow. That can only happen if I embrace who I am rather than try to be someone else. If you’ve led for very long, you’ve likely experienced similar insecurities. Almost every leader I know fights this battle, struggling with feeling good enough or smart enough or relevant enough. Ambition beckons us to be the person we think everyone else wants us to be. That person is usually different than who we truly are. If we don’t learn to be content with who God has made us and called us to be, then we will never reach our potential as influencers.
Here are 7 best practices I’ve found helpful to cultivate authentic leadership:
1. Practice self-awareness. Before you can release your true self you have to recognize your true self. Too many people refuse to accept and even name their weaknesses, struggles, and pitfalls. As a result, they accept a version of themselves they believe others will like better. Understand who you really are.
2. Question yourself. I encourage leaders to evaluate their self-acceptance with honest questions: Whose attention do you crave? Are you chasing the approval of friends, colleagues, and customers? What is it you don’t like about yourself, and how can that short¬coming also be a strength? Self-diagnosis can lead to self-discovery, which is the only path to authenticity.
3. Move from self-promotion to storytelling. I can appreciate the effort made by individuals in the public eye to shape their personal brands. But I also worry about the effects this can have on living an authentic life. If you want to be a change maker, begin to see public outlets as places for sharing your personal story.
4. Resist the urge to create a digital alter ego. Refuse to hide behind a website or Facebook page. Instead, adopt the mind-set of Claire Diaz Ortiz, social innovation director for Twitter: “Social media is not just about being connected. It’s about being transparent, intimate, and honest.”
5. Learn to laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Instead, grow comfortable enough with who you are to laugh and laugh often. When you are able to accept and even chuckle at your blunders and mess-ups, others will too. And this common experience will help you bond with them.
6. Build a support network. Beware of the temptation to surround yourself with flatterers who only tell you what you want to hear. Keep honest people in your life so that you can stay grounded and keep from thinking you’ve arrived.
7. Be interested over interesting. Be more concerned with listening instead of talking. Focus on others, not yourself.
Be who you are. When we attempt to be someone else, we allow fear to control our lives. Fear that others won’t like us. Fear that others won’t follow us. Fear that we won’t be good enough. Unfortunately, the real you has to surface at some point. So inauthentic leaders often end up living a fractured life where their true selves are unleashed in private or only with certain individuals. And as we’ve seen too often in modern times, living a secret life is fraught with many dangers. In the new economy of leadership, authenticity rises to the top. You must unleash the real you.
Who are the most authentic leaders that you know? What makes their leadership style so attractive? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below and on Twitter with hashtag #CatalystLeader.