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Purpose-Find-YoursThere was a very popular discussion titled “What is Authentic Leadership?” in a LinkedIn group, Creating Workplace Superheroes. The premise was that in order to be an effective leader you have to be Authentic, i.e. you have to lead from a certain set of convictions. Although some argued that you can be an actor as a leader, I strongly believe that you have to lead from a set of principles that are your own.

My first exposure to an Authentic Leader

During my first day working for an eventual mentor, John Pestka, I was handed a stack of articles, book excerpts, letters, etc. that was about 3 inches thick. He said that when I got done reading the packet I would have a pretty good idea of what he stood for. John had accumulated those articles throughout his career and felt that they captured, and helped form, his leadership philosophy. He told me that in order to evolve as a leader, I would have to figure out what I stood for because right now I was “too young and I didn’t know sh^+” (delivered in classic John style!). John also warned me that “you can’t just take this stack and make it your own, these are mine.”

That was my first exposure to Authentic Leadership.  What I eventually understood was that each and every day, leaders are faced with defining moments – choosing between “right and right”. The decision that the leader makes says a lot about them and has a huge impact on the organization. Without a set of principles to guide the leader, decisions are delayed, they are inconsistent, and the organization is rudderless. Morale and performance suffer.

Leadership is not a Popularity Contest

Acting doesn’t work. The people that you are trying to lead can see right through the façade. And believe me, they are always watching.  Since each decision has an impact on the team, they try to make sense of your decisions and they are ultimately making a decision on whether they will follow your lead or wait you out.

Being a leader is not a popularity contest and your team doesn’t have to agree with everything you do, but they do have to believe in you.  They have to believe  that your decisions are not arbitrary, convenient, or fanned by public opinion. This belief gives them the strength to do the right thing. More importantly, this belief allows them to bring you their grievances, knowing that they will be heard, and if not agreed to, that at least they received a fair shot and can move forward.

Becoming an Authentic Leader

When I left that first meeting with Pestka, I took his advice to heart and started working on “what I stood for”. At our daily sunrise meetings he would give us a “Thought for the Day” taken from books, movies, articles, and that stack of articles he had accumulated. For the concepts that I liked, I highlighted them and filed them away in my desk. I would refine the file over time based on decisions made and post mortem’s on those decisions. Then during a “governing values” exercise at a Franklin Covey workshop, I took that list out and organized them into what I aspired to be (see my list VJG Governing Values.) Everyday I would review that list and see how I did the day before and think about the day ahead of me. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not there yet, but I know what I’m striving for.

When you get put into a leadership role, your biggest surprise will be how many decisions you have to make in a given day. Knowing what you stand for will help you get through the day and help you sleep at night. Thanks to John Pestka’s authentic leadership example, I’m a little older, a little wiser, and I know “what I stand for”. If John were alive today,  he might still say that I “don’t know sh^+”, but I’m getting closer! Thanks John!