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Leadership Just by Being Yourself

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

One of the essential things for any leader is never letting anyone else define who you are. And you determine who you are. I never think of myself as being a woman CEO of this company. I think of myself as a steward of a great institution. - Ginni Rometty

Leadership is about being yourself and proving personal authenticity rather than learning a formula from a textbook. Aspiring leaders, therefore, need to be true to themselves, not slavishly following others’ ideas. Role models can be powerful, and it does not hurt to model excellence when found; executive coaching is based on this premise.

Authentic leaders are prepared to reveal their weaknesses because they know they are not super-human. This does not mean technical faults or functional failings; this would fatally flaw their performance. Instead, what is meant is that leaders should reveal their personality quirks. They are bad-tempered in the morning, shy with new people, or disorganized. Such admissions show they are human, which resonates with others, confirming that a leader is a person, not merely a role-holder.

Revealing their true selves, leaders can allow others to know and help them, and this makes for better teamwork; followers can also feel better if they have something to complain about. Thus, leaders can prevent others from inventing damaging problems by sharing at least some of their weaknesses.

Authentic leadership is, therefore, much more than a demonstration of strengths. Real leaders acknowledge their shortcomings and may even make them work for them.

Good leaders always rely on their ability to read situations. They develop a feel for an environment and interpret soft data without being told. They know when team morale is patchy or when complacency needs shaken up. There are three levels of situational sensitivity, each of which has specific skills.

Influential leaders continually learn about their essential subordinates' motives, attributes, and skills. They get to know their people through formal and, often better, informal contact, such as when traveling together.

Influential leaders read their teams. They analyze the compound balance between team members, the tension between the tasks and processes, and how the team builds its competencies.

Finally, they are concerned with defining the cultural characteristics of their organizations and keeping their finger on the pulse of the organization’s climate.

It sounds tongue-in-cheek to say that leaders care for their people. Ever noticed the cynicism in the workforce upon seeing a manager return from a people-skills training course with a new concern for others? Influential leaders do not need training programmed to convince their employees that they care. They empathize with their people and care intensely about their work.

Genuine concern is challenging because it always involves personal risk. Showing some part of yourself and you're most firmly held values can seem quite scary. It may also take detachment, the ability to stand back, see the whole picture and sometimes make tough decisions. Leadership never was a popularity contest.

Influential leaders use their differences and move on to distinguish themselves through personal qualities such as sincerity, loyalty, creativity, or sheer ability.

Using these differences is a critical leadership skill. But, as always, there is a danger – too much distance makes it impossible to sense situations properly or to communicate effectively.

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