Authentically Leading and Following (Part I)

by Paula Brown Stafford and Lisa T. Grimes

“It is true that an organization is only as good as its leaders.  It is also only as good as its followers.”

John S. McCallum

Recently, we were asked to speak on the topic of “Authentically Leading and Following.”  In preparing for the discussion, we jointly agreed on a dozen key traits that we believe are central to achieving both authentic leadership and followership.  We invite you to join us for our next series of blogs as we explore and share our insights into each of these twelve traits.  While they will not be presented in any specific order of priority, we will start with the one we believe is an absolute requirement, particularly for leaders: Authenticity.

AUTHENTICITY As Marcus Buckingham suitably stated, “Authenticity is your most precious commodity as a leader.”    Your ability to be real.  To be genuine.  To be truthful.  To be you.  Each of us was created uniquely, and we were uniquely created to be who we are, not someone else. We often see emerging professionals aspire to be who they THINK someone else believes they should be.  You are asking for hard times if you try to be someone other than you.  It’s exhausting, not to mention nearly impossible, to keep up the act.

Paula’s Perspective on Authenticity: I recall the first time someone commented on my authenticity.  I was presenting to a new team of 50-100 employees that had just been moved into my reporting line.  As can be the case in such situations, they weren’t too sure about me, and to be honest, I wasn’t all that knowledgeable about their specific function.  Going into the meeting, I sensed an apprehensive and skeptical group; I knew I had my work cut out.  We needed to get to know each other and build trust – quickly.  In an effort to establish transparency, I decided to begin my presentation by sharing a little about me, offering a few personal perspectives on my history – why I chose to work with this organization and why I was committed to staying, even during uncertain times.  My conversation with the team quickly became passionate as my comments came from the heart.  After the meeting, many remarked how much they appreciated the tone that my realness and authenticity set for the team.  Since then, that story has been recounted many times by those present that day, and each time, I am always humbled.  Prior to that day, I didn’t foresee the positive impact “being me” could have on a team.  The realization gave me the courage to embrace my unique self and always remember the value (and necessity) of authenticity as a leader.

Lisa’s Perspective on Authenticity: A few years into my career, I was asked to travel to New York to speak at a large conference.  I was eager to accept such an opportunity but also scared – the largest ‘crowd’ I had previously spoken to was around a dozen folks.  This audience was expected to number 600!  The President of my company offered me his public speaking coach, and for weeks, we worked on what I was going to say and my delivery.  He taught me a lot.  In our final session, I specifically recall him telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t say y’all; you will lose your credibility.”  I thought for a long time about what word I could substitute and still be me.  I’m sure I lost sleep over it – trying to come up with a new way of saying “y’all” that seemed like something I would say.  It wasn’t easy, but I practiced saying “you all” because his advice haunted me.  But when I got to the podium that day, guess what – the real me came out.  I began with “Thank y’all for having me here.”  ‘Oh no! What do I do now?’ thoughts raced through my mind.  In that few seconds of conversation with myself came the answer: I needed to let them know that’s who I am.  So I owned it.  I told the group of 600 “Oops…I wasn’t supposed to say “y’all” here in NYC,” and the audience erupted into laughter.  At that moment, I found my comfort zone at the podium and learned a valuable lesson about authenticity.  A simple reminder to always be true to your real self.nnWe’re all different – unique as we’ve said. Some individuals are blessed with leadership skills.  Others have the gift of followership.  Both are needed.  It’s important to be true to how we are wired – who we are – if we are to reach our greatest potential and help our organizations succeed.n

So, always remember who YOU are.  Keep it real and authentic, whether leading or following.