Working with middle school students taught me everything I need to know about authenticity. Middle schoolers have an extraordinary nose for “baloney.” Much like Santa Clause:
They know when you are lying,
They know when you are fake,
They know when you are not yourself, so be you for goodness sake!
Oh! You better be you, you better not lie,
You better stay true, I’m telling you why,
Middle schoolers will bring you down.
Humor aside, when I first started working in a middle school, I tried on a lot of masks that other people told me I needed. There was the tough-guy mask, the authoritarian dictator mask, the yeller mask, the “I know everything” mask, the disciplinarian mask…and none of them fit. In fact, they were often scratchy and wearing them left marks on my heart. I will never forget the time I was trying to make a point with a child who was behaving disgracefully. As I bellowed and ranted at him, his face melted into a smile and eventually into a laugh. This made me angrier and I yelled, “THIS IS SERIOUS! WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?” His face got serious. “I’m sorry, miss,” he said genuinely, “you’re just not a very good yeller.” My anger disappeared, and my heart became a gooey mess of love and appreciation. I started laughing too, we went on a walk and talked it out like human beings who cared for one another. That was the day I threw away my yeller mask.
For me, authenticity is about more than just being myself, it’s about knowing myself and using my God-given gifts to do the work I was put on this earth to do. It’s about knowing and acting according to my “why,” about naming my strengths and my crucibles. It’s about understanding, exploring, honoring, and celebrating the experiences and stories that have shaped me into the person that I am. The authentic self is what is left when you peel away the masks you’ve created or have been given, when you do what comes naturally rather than what you are “supposed to,” for better or for worse. My experience suggests that authenticity is the core and foundation of leadership. Nonetheless, it is something that we all struggle with for several reasons. First, it is impossible to be authentic all the time. There will be moments when we act inauthentically, when we are forced to make decisions that do not feel natural. There will be moments when we say things that we regret, when we are afraid of showing our true selves and therefore try on masks that don’t fit. The key here is self-awareness and what we do when we realize that our actions, words, decisions, or ways of being are out-of-line with who we are. I have found that naming these moments out loud is essential to my personal journey as a leader.
A few years ago, I was facilitating a staff meeting during which I had to review new, non-negotiable compliance regulations that I knew were not going to go over well with my team. We were already stretched thin and we were struggling with implementing some of the regulations that had already been in place. I was afraid to have the conversation and to hear more frustration, so I presented the material as a one-pager and an announcement. “As of today, we must do x, y, and z. Please let me know if you have questions.” I could feel the energy in the room shift. I knew that people had thoughts and feelings. My natural inclination was to empathize, to open up the dialogue, to give space for expression. But we had things to do and limited time and so it was. We had more student behavior problems after that meeting than we did in the previous week combined. We also failed miserably at implementing the new regulations.
I went home and felt terrible, as I often do when I am not my most authentic self. You know the feeling of perfection and alignment when you put the last piece of a puzzle in? For me, it feels like the opposite of that. The edges of my body and soul just don’t feel like they fit together. Despite limited time, fear, and dread over the outcome, the next day, I called another staff meeting to discuss the new regulations and emphasized that it would be a time to think through the effects of the regulations not only for our students and work but also for ourselves. I began by expressing my own trepidation and frustration and let them fill the space with their MANY thoughts, feelings, and anxieties. We took the time to go through them, to think through how and why these new rules might have been put into effect, to name what we saw as “ridiculous” and what we saw as actually potentially helpful. At the end of the conversation, people still did not feel good about the situation, but they felt heard and like I understood their point of view. They were also more bought in, willing to try new strategies with my support, and felt like they could come to me to brainstorm and troubleshoot rather than to just report that they messed up or made a mistake. This is the way I want my teams to function, and this more open and empathetic leadership style was for me, far more aligned with my true self and my gifts as a manager. After that, I put my authoritarian-dictator mask at the bottom of the pile (at that time, I wasn’t prepared to throw it away, but I have very rarely used it since).
The second challenge I’ve noticed when it comes to authenticity is that sometimes our natural tendencies are not positive or constructive tendencies. Some of us are quick to anger, violence, or blaming others. Some of us cannot handle conflict or disagreements. Some of us are push-overs, some of us like pushing the envelope, some of us are strict rule-followers. Some of us believe we are always right and that others should always listen to what we say or demand. I am a person who initially shuts down and quickly apologizes when I do something wrong or get critical feedback, even if I disagree. I also err on the side of giving second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, because I believe in people’s ability to change. Often, in talking to family members, I assume bad intentions, jump down their throats, and get annoyed before I have really heard what they are saying. None of us is perfect even if we aspire to be, and sometimes our natural tendencies or conditioned responses get in the way of being our best-selves, of being the leaders we seek to be but aren’t yet. In my opinion, being truly authentic is about naming when our innate characteristics stand in contrast with the characteristics we aspire to embody. It’s about being open and honest about our desires to shift or change our responses or actions to be more positive or constructive, which requires us to be vulnerable about our flaws and weaknesses in front of others. Being an authentic leader is not about being a perfect leader. It’s about being a reflective, ever-changing, and ever-improving leader.
Finally, leading with authenticity requires us to be open to others leading with authenticity. And surprise! Our authentic leadership style will rarely be the same as our supervisors’, coworkers’, teammates’, staff’s, or even spouses’ or friends. Have you ever watched an introvert and an extravert make a presentation together? Or have you ever been in a meeting when half the room is talking about feelings while the other half is talking about policies? Or perhaps you’ve been in a situation when your supervisor addresses you or treats you in a way that you feel is disrespectful or insensitive or in a way you would never address your staff people? As with the other two authenticity challenges, self-awareness is key when one style butts up against or conflicts with another style. I once had a conversation with a supervisor about a decision that needed to be made and action that needed to follow the decision. The conversation was going nowhere. After an hour of going back and forth, I realized that we could not decide because we were placing value on different parts of the decision. She was worried about money and I was worried about people’s feelings. When we named that, we were able to spend time with both parts and wound up making two decisions that supported each other. In this case, both of our natural tendencies were needed to make the best decision, but it was necessary to openly name the conflict in order to move forward. If we had not named it and been willing to engage with it, we might never have come to the place we did.
Somebody once suggested to me that leadership is about “acting” and “faking it until you make it.” While I am a proponent of practice and recognize that sometimes we need to adapt and change, I believe that this advice misses the mark. In my experience, people can tell when you’re acting, and you cannot fully self-actualize as a leader if you are being inauthentic. Furthermore, I have found that people are less likely to follow a person who thinks so little of himself that he will not be himself. For me, authenticity is the cornerstone of my approach and the factor that I believe has most shaped me into the leader I am. The feelings of impurity and inner turmoil that arise when I am not my most authentic self just aren’t worth it.