I had never seen anything like it. In the span of 10 minutes, this executive had captured the hearts and minds of everyone in the room. As the room erupted in applause, following her brief “kick-off” speech, I looked around at everyone else wiping their eyes, trying to regain their composure after the emotional journey we had just taken together. I knew this group of high-potentials would never be the same. She had single-handedly redefined what it means to be a powerful leader. Passing the floor to me, she smiled and said. “Now I’ll leave it to Kimberly to talk to you about Authentic Leadership”. Could there have been a better way to start the conversation?
I think not.
We forget. We forget how powerful we are.
So often, we think that our strength as leaders lies in what we know. We know the work. We know how to make tough decisions quickly. We know how to get things done. But in today’s world, these skills are but a fraction of what it takes to maximize results. Leadership in a “VUCA” world requires more.
VUCA. Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. This is the landscape of our daily lives. In the past, when most jobs were fairly routine, transactional, and required only basic prioritization, command and control could get the job done; you’d tell someone what to do and if they didn’t, “Heads are going to roll!” Try that today and you’ll pay a price you may not even see…
Your best and brightest won’t hesitate to take their talent elsewhere, leaving a paycheck exchange to get the job done. For passion, creativity, commitment, loyalty, trust, excitement and engagement are activities of the heart. People give their best because they want to, not because they have to. Do you know how to connect to the hearts of the people you need to lead and influence? The “kick-off” leader certainly did.
When she had started sharing her personal story, I didn’t expect her to “go there” but she did. Courageously. She spoke about applying for her current position. About having to earn it. About what such a big move would mean to her family. The sacrifices that would have to be made. About wanting it and being afraid to want it too much. She let us see the woman without the title putting herself on the line. She took us behind-the-scenes and painted a rich picture of how she stepped outside of her comfort zone and went the extra mile. We hung on every word. As her emotions started to show, she shared that she had been scared.
You could have heard a pin drop.
In less time than it takes to get a coffee at Starbucks, this leader had captured the hearts and minds of everyone in the room—forty high potential leaders, most with numerous direct reports—all inspired and ready to act.
Imagine the ripple effect.
When we talk about “authenticity” these days, it’s easy to get confused. If you spend more than 5 minutes on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll likely see a post that says something like, “Be authentic! Be yourself!”—and that’s all well and good, except in the framework of leadership and influence it’s not enough. For who gets to decide? Who gets to decide if you’re authentic?
Certainly, you can decide that for yourself, but it won’t help you lead or influence. What matters, from a leadership perspective, is whether the people around you experience you that way. Do the people you need to lead and influence experience you as genuine, worthy of trust, reliance and belief so they want to be a part of what you’re doing? Do they want to give their best? Do they want to follow?
If it’s true, that our best is a matter of choice, not transaction, then leaders cannot afford to play it safe. We have a responsibility to our organizations, our shareholders, and the people we lead to put more of ourselves on the line. We need to take down our masks and risk being seen. We need to risk connection. We need to risk showing we care.
We need to risk being powerfully human.
Every situation, no matter how small, is a chance to make an impact—to earn the want of those we lead. Whether it’s a kick-off, a one-on-one, or a town hall, the stakes are higher than we realize—engagement, morale, performance, culture, results. What is the impact you want to have? Like anything worthwhile, authentic leadership doesn’t come easy.
That’s why it’s reserved for the brave.
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