By Gino Blefari
This week my travels found me at home, starting Monday with my typical WIG calls among our HomeServices of America CEOs. On Tuesday, I participated virtually in the Berkshire Hathaway Energy Weekly Presidents Meeting followed by the August CEO Leadership Microsoft Teams Meeting. On Wednesday, I had the distinct opportunity to take part in the first-annual Walk-N-Wag to benefit the Sunshine Kids, a non-profit organization for children with cancer. Kona and I got some exercise and enjoyed the summer day, all for a great cause.
In addition to a packed week of virtual events and meetings, I also carved out some time to digest a fantastic Harvard Business Review article – “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership.” The authors (Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean and Diana Mayer) eloquently explained the importance of authenticity when leading a team.
As industries quickly shift and the world swiftly changes, the new challenge for leaders is to lead authentically. But what does “authentic leadership” really mean? To answer that complex question, the authors interviewed 125 effective leaders, interested in learning exactly how they developed their winning leadership abilities. Half of the group was made up of CEOs while the other half was an array of profit and non-profit leaders. The interviewees were aged 23 to 93, with varied backgrounds and experiences.
And after sifting through more than 3,000 pages of transcripts, they realized something extraordinary: “Our team was startled to see that these people did not identify any universal characteristics, traits, skills or styles that led to their success.”
Instead, it was the particular and unique life stories of each leader that contained traceable amounts of lessons and acquired abilities, which ultimately allowed them to successfully lead. As the authors explained, “Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core.”
In other words, they were perpetually working harder on themselves than they were on their jobs, on a path of continual self-improvement as humans and as leaders for their respective teams. This personal quest alone made them singularly effective.
The authors explained, “Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to developing yourself. Like musicians and athletes, you must devote yourself to a lifetime of realizing your potential.”
Hand in hand with authenticity is a heightened level of self-awareness. When 75 members from the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked to name the trait most important for a leader to develop, they near-unanimously selected self-awareness.
The authors cite the example of David Pottruck, former CEO of Charles Schwab. He was an all-league football player in high school and MVP of his college team at the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving his MBA from Wharton, Pottruck was named head of marketing at Charles Schwab. He put in long hours. He pushed his colleagues to deliver results. He accomplished his goals and yet, he felt resentment among his colleagues. “It never occurred to me that my level of energy would intimidate and offend other people,” Pottruck said. In the end, realizing this, he became more self-aware of his own actions and worked to motivate his team members while reducing friction among the team.
Another important part of authenticity is motivation, and leaders should balance their extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivations are the measures of success according to what the authors describe as “the world’s outside parameters.” This includes the recognition and status that comes with promotions or awards. Intrinsic motivations, according to the authors, are “derived from [a] sense of the meaning of life.” These types of motivations are linked to one’s life story and may include personal growth, engaging in social causes and making a difference in the world, like our volunteers felt while joining the Walk-N-Wag this week. The feel-good moments of leadership make the hard work and late nights worth every second of a leader’s time. It takes courage to pursue the intrinsic motivations of success, but for an effective leader the extrinsic must be counterbalanced by the intrinsic, for purpose to turn to passion and for a job to become a calling, making any given leader shine.
So, what’s the message? Authentic leadership can be hard to define but that’s exactly the point. It means different things for different leaders, an indicator of the individuality and exceptionality that makes any given leader shine.