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Leadership Moments

To Develop Your Authentic Leadership Style, Look in the Mirror, Not at Others

September 25, 2019

As your leadership style evolves, it can be tempting to borrow approaches from other leaders. But as my colleague at Merryck & Co., Laurel Richie, explains below, there are no shortcuts to the hard work of introspection to ensure you are true to your values. Laurel has deep leadership experience, as a board director and the former president of the WNBA, and she shared with me some of the themes that come up most often in her mentoring work.

Q. What are the most common themes that come up when you’re advising senior executives?

A. People take the responsibility of being a leader very seriously, and many people do a lot of reading and looking at others’ approaches to leadership. While it’s important to scan the environment and study people you admire, the really hard work is the introspection ⁠— to look at what kind of a leader you are and want to be, and to determine the guiding principles that you want to adopt as your personal leadership style. I try to really encourage people to be true to themselves as a leader rather than a knock-off of somebody whom they admire.

Q. How do you help guide people through that process? What questions do you ask?

A. I like to ask people about when they have felt really good about their leadership. When has it felt effortless and effective and enriching for them and for others? When has it felt most challenging and most difficult? And then we look at the difference between the times when they were soaring and when they were struggling.

And in those times of soaring, that’s when they’ve been true to themselves, they are showing up most authentically, and oftentimes it’s less about them and more about the initiative or the team. And the moments when they’ve struggled is often when they are not showing up as authentically, or adopting the behaviors and practices that they’ve seen in others.

Another dynamic is seeing things that they did not like in other leaders and correcting it within themselves when it may not even be an issue for them. They may not have liked when other leaders talk too much and don’t listen, or they’re too dominant, but that doesn’t mean they need to address that in their own leadership.

I was advising an executive who was working with a group of colleagues who were extremely aggressive. The client wanted help from me to become less aggressive, and I told them that I was 100 percent certain that that will never be an issue, and we focused our efforts instead on building their considerable skills instead of trying to solve their colleagues’ leadership problems.

Q. Other themes?

A. We talk a lot about stakeholders. When people think of leadership, it’s often quite binary – they think about themselves as the leader and they think about their direct reports, and they don’t spend as much time as they need to thinking about their peers and all of the relationships that are critical to the work that they do.

Q. Some people might say, “I just don’t have time for coffee with my peers because I’m so busy with my work.”

A. But often that coffee with your peers on the leadership team is the most important thing you can do, because in most organizations, there’s a pretty broad group of people who need to work together. While everyone has their area of responsibility and their team, the power of the organization is unleashed through interaction and collaboration. When people take the time to nurture those relationships, it actually accelerates their work and their development.

Q. What else?

A. Asking for help. Often when people find themselves in positions of significant leadership, they put an unfair expectation on themselves to have all the answers because they think that’s what good leaders do. But good leaders ask really good questions, and they ask for help in solving a problem or developing a strategy or critiquing a significant initiative.

    We’re losing some of the muscle memory around active listening.

That requires listening, and listening for understanding is critical. It takes real concentration and patience. And as the speed of our work increases and shifts to different forms of technology, the forums for genuine conversation are dwindling. We’re losing some of the muscle memory around active listening.

Q. What are your thoughts on the biggest momentum killers in corporate cultures?

A. The biggest one is when the gap between what people say and what they do is too big. Rarely will you find a business entity where there’s absolutely no gap. You have to make tough choices, and they’re not always 100 percent in sync.

I find that healthy cultures tend to have very clearly articulated mission, vision, values, code of conduct and operating principles, and then they work really hard to consistently live up to them. They measure them and discuss shortfalls and fix the gaps.

The cultures that are not as healthy, and therefore not as productive, are the ones where they may have articulated their mission, vision, values and code of conduct, but they’re not living and breathing them every day. So those words become empty words rather than true guiding principles of how the organization is going to operate and the impact it wants to have.

    If you’re standing on shifting sand, it’s hard to build momentum and progress.

I hear lots of stories of people sitting around the conference room table at a meeting, and their experience in that meeting is completely at odds with the framed principles on the wall. When those principles are not woven into the daily operations of the organization, people feel lost. Work is hard enough to figure out, and if you’re standing on shifting sand, it’s hard to build momentum and progress.

Q. What do you think is the hardest aspect of leadership?

A. One of them is understanding, owning and continuing to hone your unique leadership potential. There are many different strands of leadership, and the most important thing is to show up authentically and to understand your strengths and your weaknesses as a leader.

That allows you to lean into your strengths and to continue to develop areas that may not be as strong and to think about the composition of the team around you to compensate for areas that may not be strengths. It’s really important to be conscious about who you are as a leader, how you show up as a leader, and the impact that you want to have as a leader.

Q. Many companies say they want a diverse leadership team but they don’t make good on that process. Your thoughts on how to develop a truly diverse leadership team?

A. All of the data tells us that with diverse teams, companies are more successful and the teams are happier. As a woman, an African American, a midwesterner and a marketer, I often brought a different perspective, a different way of thinking, to working groups.

The first part is recognizing that you want to build teams that are diverse and inclusive. I think any good leader encourages discussion, debate and challenge, and these interactions are even better when people are bringing different perspectives.

It’s about diversity in all of its forms – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and it’s also diversity of experience. It’s about valuing the discussion and the debate that comes from having a very diverse team.

Q. Final thoughts on mentoring?

A. As an individual’s career unfolds, it is really critical to have your “kitchen cabinet” or your personal board of directors or your network ⁠— however you define the handful of people with whom you can have really open and honest conversations about vulnerabilities, fears, and aspirations. They always have your best interest at heart, and they aren’t afraid to speak the truth, to encourage you and to challenge you.

There are aspects of leadership that are surprisingly lonely, and having a group of people that become your touchstone is really valuable.

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