Leadership Through Emergent Authenticity

January 8, 2015

Leadership requires many traits including integrity, courage, humility and the ability to communicate well. It also requires authenticity.

But being authentic can be tricky as author Herminia Ibarra points out in a recent article titled “The Authenticity Paradox,” in the Harvard Business Review.

As a leader it may be difficult to remain true to who you are when leading an organization that is continually changing and evolving. Or when moving to a new company where your authentic self may not be fully appreciated.

Does your ability to demonstrate vulnerability make you appear weak and ineffectual instead of humble and approachable? Ibarra writes of maintaining the correct mix of distance and closeness in an unfamiliar situation.

Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld says it is about “managing the tension between your authority and approachability.” She says being authoritative means using your knowledge, experience and expertise over the team’s, while maintaining a measure of distance. On the other hand, being approachable means you emphasize your relationships with people by seeking their input and perspective, while you lead with empathy and warmth. It’s a balance.

Finding an organization whose values are aligned with yours is a good place to begin. However, unless you are one of the founders of the organization, you may not align 100% or remain fully aligned as you advance your career.

In the same way organizations are (or should be) constantly evolving to meet market conditions and accommodating new employees, so too should you evolve as a leader. While keeping up with new knowledge and skills is important, you also need to recognize and accept that your true self should continually grow and adapt given the situation.

Instead of being static in your identity, your true self should continually evolve with your environment in order to be most effective. Not as a chameleon, but as a curious, open-minded, lifelong learner who is willing to listen to other perspectives, try out new behaviors, and evolve as you age.

It is often said that we see others as photographs and we see ourselves as movies. This is because we have a tendency to put people in boxes in order to best understand them. But this only keeps us from really knowing each other. Even though we know and accept that we as individuals are continually changing, we fail to appreciate that so too is everyone else.

This ability to stay true to yourself while evolving means not being too rigid in how you see yourself. For example, in networking situations if you are still describing yourself the way you did ten years ago, you may want to rethink things.

Try out new stories to describe yourself, stop repeating who you were or even how others might describe you, and begin showing who you are now. Get comfortable with the idea that who were yesterday, is not who you are today, nor who you will become tomorrow.

Learn from other leaders and make small adjustments regularly to allow your authentic self to continually evolve and emerge. This doesn’t mean stop holding true to your values, but allow for refinement as you reassess and move throughout your career.

One of the reasons I love jazz is that it seems to perfectly encapsulate a combination of structure and improvisation, a musical form that enables freedom of expression of one’s true authentic self. And a great jazz musician never plays the same composition exactly the same every time.

As a leader it’s essential to continually listen and learn from others. Introspection is important, but it should not be at the exclusion of interacting with others and, ideally, it should come after this interaction.

Look outward, reflect inward, and continually refine how your authentic self contributes to or detracts from your overall effectiveness as a leader. Don’t expect your authentic self to remain still, and let it continually evolve and emerge.

Trapped Chilean Miners & Emergent Leadership

October 12, 2011

Visionary leaders like the late Steve Jobs don’t come along all that often, but strong leadership qualities can emerge in any of us and at any time. Sometimes it just takes a crisis before we see these exemplary skills come forward.

Think of Sir Ernest Shakleton who, after failing to succeed at his original goal in becoming the first to walk across the Antarctic continent, maintained order and optimism in his crew for nearly two years under extremely difficult circumstances to save all 28 men.

And more recently, those who led the 33 Chilean miners to safety one year ago this week, including Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, mining minister Laurence Golborne and shift supervisor Luis Urzula. Each of them took risks and rose to the challenge of what it means to be a strong leader.

On August 5, 2010 a private mine in the Atacama desert collapsed trapping 33 miners more than 2000 feet below the surface. It was a full 17 days before anyone knew that the 33 were still alive, but that didn’t keep people from immediately taking responsibility and planning a rescue operation.

Chilean President Pinera announced that the priority was to attempt a rescue, yet he set no firm deadline or date. He set a vision, but left it to others to define the roadmap. He also celebrated small wins along the way in order to keep everyone inspired. This clarity of vision and celebration of incremental victories along the way helped lead the way for everyone involved.

Mining minister Golborne said he felt immediately empowered once Pinera committed to the world that they would find the miners. He created two teams: one at the site working inside the mine, doing the drilling and preparing for the rescue; and another team in Santiago looking at different technologies to design the rescue. It was also vital that they began three different options concurrently and ended up succeeding with Plan B.

Shift supervisor Urzula demonstrated both competence and compassion leading the men inside the mine through this 69 day ordeal. He defined and enforced how all 33 would spend their days, and switched off electric lights to simulate night. Urzula rationed two days worth of food to last the 17 days before they were discovered, which amounted to one teaspoon of tuna and a half-glass of milk each 48 hours. All the men were forced to eat together and at the same time to maintain fairness and inclusiveness. Urzula as their leader was also the last to leave the mine.

Mario Gomez, the 62-year-old cheerleader and spiritual guide of the group, said after being rescued, “Sometimes you need something to happen to really reflect that you only have one life. I am changed, I am a different man.”

The leadership skills demonstrated by these brave men of Chile include clarity of purpose, focus, celebration of small victories, competence, compassion, communication, creativity, discipline, and teamwork. This event gave a billion people around the world something to be proud of and celebrate as we witnessed the miners being rescued.

Most of us will never face the challenges of these miners or the people helping to rescue them because our work is not as dangerous. But there are many opportunities in our workplace for taking a risk, stepping out of our comfort zone, and rising to the challenge of leadership.

This could be taking an unpopular position on a project that may put you at odds with others. It may mean speaking up for someone when you believe that person was treated unfairly. Or it may mean taking responsibility for something no one else is willing to do.

Whatever it is, there will be risks of failure and the possibility that you make look like a fool. But as Steve Jobs said in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Leadership requires both courage and humility. Sometimes it takes a crisis for us to fully embrace this.