by Dr. John J. Franey, CEO/Founder of Developing Difference Makers
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When we think of leadership, we often focus solely on the actions of the leader towards the followers. We talk about how leaders motivate others to succeed, how leaders take initiative in times of stress, and how leaders are able to move great forces towards a common goal. We celebrate the actions, but we often miss where these actions are built. The foundation for every successful leadership action is the leader’s own understanding of who they are. For every leadership action is a representation of who the leader is, what the leader believes in, and what the leader excels at. To be a great leader, a person must not only be self-aware, but they have to live and act according to their authentic self. In the field of leadership, we call this authentic leadership.
Authentic leadership is based on two concepts of ancient Greek philosophers: 1) know thyself, and 2) to thine self be true. Authentic leaders know who they are, know their strengths and weaknesses, know their goals and vision, and know what they believe in. Authentic leaders take action based on their own personal values and convictions. Authentic leaders know who they are and are not worried about what others might think of them. Authentic leaders lead by example, are transparent in their decision-making, are accountable for their actions, and acknowledge their own limitations. In order to achieve this level of authenticity, you must work through various levels of self-awareness. The push in this work is to be honest and open with yourself. In getting to know your authentic self, the focus is on what you know about yourself, not what others tell you about yourself. Authenticity is not about conforming to what others believe in or want you to be, it is about knowing and living what you believe in and what you want to be.
While this authenticity may sound simple, we as people focus almost entirely on what others think of us. We follow career paths that others believe would work well for us. We make decisions that will enable us to fit in with the crowd. We live the status quo. Rarely do we completely follow what it is that we believe in and what we are interested in. There are myriad reasons why we are not authentic in our lives, but the biggest detriment to being an authentic leader is FEAR! We fear what others might think of us. We fear the consequences of breaking away from the crowd. We fear failure and hearing everyone tell us, “I told you so.”
But most of the greatest innovators and leaders followed their authentic self. They traversed their authentic path and were able to enact leadership in forms that others had never seen or experienced before. Bill Gates didn’t follow the crowd and finish his studies at Harvard, he got in touch with his authentic self, dropped out and believed his new computer company would be huge. Martin Luther King, Jr., never wavered from his authentic self and his belief that the world could be different. The company Old Navy is authentic to itself, it doesn’t try to be a high-end retailer like Nordstorms. Old Navy is who it is and if it changed then it would no longer be Old Navy and they would lose their incredibly strong client base. Adele doesn't suddenly start writing and singing rap songs because that is what is kids are listening to. She knows her authentic self, and what songs connect with who she is, and she sings them without fear of not fitting in.
But this is a place where so many leaders and organizations fail. They try to be something they are not. They try to appease everyone. They lack a focus in their products, decisions, and actions. It is like the face-off between a great pitcher and a great hitter in baseball. If the pitcher is known for their great fastball then they go with their fastball and they believe in it. Pitchers run into trouble when they lose their authentic self and try to match what they are doing with what the hitter doesn’t do well. Often times the pitcher is throwing a curve ball or change-up, neither of which they throw well, because they think this is the hitter’s weakness. So they would rather go with their 2nd or 3rd best pitch, rather than believing their best pitch is better than that hitter’s strengths. That pitcher just needs to believe in their stuff, believe in that great fastball, and believe that the fastball will strike out that hitter. It doesn’t always work and that batter may hit a home run off that pitcher every now and then, but more times than not, that authenticity will reign supreme.
It is not just on the baseball field where authenticity is so greatly needed. Every organization and leader needs to find their authentic self. They need to find what they do well and what they believe in. Every action and decision should be focused on this authentic belief system and skill set. If they don’t know and live their authentic self, then they are set up failure. If they don’t lead through authenticity then they are just another face in the crowd. It may be easier to just fit into that crowd. It may be easier to fit into what everyone else thinks you should do. It might be easier to not take a stand in your life. It might be easier to not face that fear of failure. But for those of us who want to be truly great leaders who make a difference in the world, then we need to get that mirror out and start figuring out who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and what it is that we believe in and want to accomplish. That mirror will lead us to success. That mirror will lead us to happiness because we will be living the life that we believe in. And the world will hopefully be a better place because we took the time to look in that mirror and figure out our authentic self.