Is Authentic Executive Presence an Oxymoron?
New name notwithstanding, I continue to believe in the work I do helping leaders develop an authentic presence that supports their careers as executives and leaders. And I see every day that this juxtaposition of authenticity in the high-stakes professional world is a tough pill to swallow. How can a person be themselves and still navigate the competitive work world?
Can you let down your guard in an environment where being “on guard” seems the smartest, safest choice?
Why would anyone even try?
We try because we know that authenticity is the very essence of connection, a critical skill for leaders. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown shares years of research into how vulnerability is the gateway of connection. Without the human element of leadership, you may get compliance but never willing followership. Authentic leadership is one of the hottest terms in leadership development circles today, with well-known advocates like Zappos’ Tony Hsieh and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. The ideas have been growing since Harvard Professor Bill George wrote Authentic Leadership a decade ago, changing the dialogue about what effectiveness entailed. (More here.)
Personally, I’ve asked “What are the qualities of presence?” to about 5,000 people at this point and “authentic” nearly always makes the list. (As does confident and engaging, which I could argue are related to authenticity.)
With so many pro-authenticity messages it’s helpful to admit that, for most of us, we may find it hard to get there. As Brown notes, in our formative pre-teen years, we start assembling an armor to protect ourselves against pain, and it grows through our development. If we’re lucky, as we age we start shedding it again, as we get comfortable in our own skin and are less interested in superficiality. Some people never let down the armor, and I’m guessing you can name a few. (And don’t like them very much.)
Let’s also be realistic that we can have too much authenticity. How you come across to others matters as well. Presence lies in that sandbox between who you are as a person and how others perceive you. You can believe yourself to be reserved, but if others take you to be aloof, both sentiments factor into your presence.
We spend so much of our lives at work, that many of us crave authenticity to bring more joy to our careers. For any new behavior, starting small can pave the way to behavioral change. It also gives us a chance to see what affects the dynamic around us without a wholesale public personality overhaul. Here are a few high-impact suggestions:
1. Share more stories.
Stories are the most accessible way to show up in a more authentic way. By sharing our own stories, of how we’ve succeeded, struggled, and even failed — we create a path to form relationships. Stories also allow others to get to know us, and trust us. This is not a minor point. Neuroscientists have discovered that when we experience another person, we put them into either a “friend or foe” category. Words from those in the friend bucket are processed in a completely different part of our brains than those in the foe bucket. Someone we don’t know? Foe category. For more, check out this work by David Rock.
People tell me that they would share more stories, but they are concerned that no one else would care or that they can’t tell stories well. My advice is to stop self-censoring, and when a story or anecdote comes to you that relates to the situation at hand, share it. The more you tell, the easier it gets.
Of no small importance, stories are also a highly effective leadership tool. They’ve been found to shape cultures, cement memory, and increase followership, as Dan and Chip Heath explain in their research in Made to Stick.
2. Balance competence with vulnerability.
One of the reasons that authenticity is uncomfortable is because it’s related to vulnerability. We know only too well what’s causing us problems or holding us back. We know when we feel like a fraud or are falling short. And we try very hard to hide those feelings from others.
While it’s important to not come across as an insecure mess, never showing our vulnerabilities actually backfires. The perfectionistic, never see ’em sweat, A-gamers cause disconnection in others. Being able to balance your competency with your vulnerability makes you human, and creates a safe place for others. It also encourages strategic risk-taking and innovation, which are critical to excellence.
Think of your favorite boss. My strong guess is he or she wasn’t perfect, but perfectly human.
3. Determine the energy you bring into the room.
I love the axiom that you’re responsible for the energy you bring into the room. Take that one step further, and you should also be strategic about it. As a leader, calm is contagious (as is stress).
Before important conversations or meetings, take a pause and determine what feeling you want to invoke in others. Get it in your head, and try to carry it in the room. You’ll find that just taking a few seconds will help you show up the way you’d like to, and in line with your intention.
4. Conduct your own presence audit.
Research shows that as leaders gain more power, they lose empathy. This behavior is observed in all primates, as we pay attention up the hierarchy much more so than down. This means that as you ascend, you need to be very careful about fostering feedback channels about your own presence.
I suggest a quick five-person presence audit, in which you find five people who know you and can give it to you straight. Ask them two questions: “What is the general perception of me?” and “What I could I do differently that would most impact my success?”
This type of feedback is critical yet rarely given. Knowing how you show up, the energy you carry, and how connected you are provides the context to understand your own leadership impact, and what moves to make to become an authentic leader who inspires. It’s not about being someone else — but the best version of yourself.
What’s hard or easy for you about authentic leadership? Comment here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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