Leading is learning. Not so much learning how to do the things we refer to as “leadership” — giving direction, managing accountabilities, and motivating others — but rather, learning who you are and how to bring the best of yourself to moments of influence with others.
Many of us feel at times as if we are impersonating a leader rather than working out what it means to be ourselves in a position of leadership. Instead of covering up those underdeveloped areas, great leaders learn how to operate as they truly are.
Take now-retired host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart. His story about the early years of his career offers a lighthearted but incisive description of what happens when you take a learner’s mind and experiment with the connection between who you are and what you aspire to do: “Sunday night through Thursday night it was me and drunk Dutch tourists in a basement in the Village.... I went on every night and I learned the difference between impersonating a comedian and being a comedian. And that was my break. [It] was learning how to be authentic. Not to the audience but to myself.”
Recognizing that “who you are is how you lead” enables you to take immediate steps toward your authentic leadership. As I discussed in that post, concrete actions, such as pressure-testing the clarity and integrity of your values, give you an opportunity to pinpoint gaps in your actions.
Within each gap there are often subtle patterns of thought and behavior that limit your authenticity — I call these “authenticity filters.” They take on many forms and often look healthy or positive at first, when really they are flaws. For example, maybe you are considerate of others’ feelings and take care in how colleagues perceive you. This is important, yet if you invest too much energy into being liked and start holding back just to please others, you’ve created an authenticity filter that will rob you of your leadership voice and the opportunities that it brings.
Regardless of what your roadblocks to authenticity may be, documenting the patterns that keep them in place is the first step toward a truer expression of who you are in the moments that count.
Aarush was a rising leader who found himself holding back his point of view. He was new to meetings in the C-suite and the combination of increased pressure to perform and a few difficult personalities in the room made it challenging for him to contribute freely. Staying silent was adversely affecting his reputation, and after a few meetings he was given sharp feedback to “step it up.”
Aarush knew that restraining his perspective was limiting his authentic leadership presence, yet he didn’t know how to flip a switch to start confidently expressing his own ideas or pushing back on others’. He sensed that he was getting in his own way, and he wanted to step back to gain perspective.
To see a bigger picture, and ultimately get to the root cause of what was happening, Aarush completed a 10-minute exercise to map the “trip-wire pattern” that kept him stuck. Starting with a simple list, he brainstormed then charted the familiar sequence of actions he found himself unwillingly repeating.
Aarush’s Trip-Wire Pattern
- I need to speak up at meetings and share an authentic point of view.
- The client is challenging, and I’m not sure my views have value.
- I filter myself to avoid saying the wrong thing, and I defer to others.
- The pressure grows with my silence, and I become more guarded.
The first action was the intention/expectation that he should be speaking up more. After all, he had a seat at the table and wanted to use it. From there, he used items 2 through 4 to capture the rest of the sequence.
After a few simple revisions, Aarush had an accurate map of the authenticity filter that was undermining his leadership. Looking at the trip-wire pattern on paper also allowed him to take a step back and see each of the moving parts with more objectivity. Aarush reflected: “I can see it much more clearly now. This is just one pressure-packed cycle where the more I hold back, the more pressure I put on myself to have something brilliant to say, which only leads to more pressure — and more silence in the moment.”
Many of us feel at times as if we are impersonating a leader rather than working out what it means to be ourselves in a position of leadership.
The key to changing any underlying pattern of behavior is to spot the opening where a different response can trigger a shift in the status quo. Once he accurately mapped the pattern and reflected on its impact, Aarush was ready to disrupt it and turn it around. He chose to focus on step 3, because he realized a big assumption — “Whatever I say has to be brilliant!” — was hiding behind his choice to stay silent. Replacing this old assumption with a different mind-set could inspire a new behavior, so he challenged himself to think differently.
Armed with this knowledge, two powerful thoughts helped him regain his authenticity: “I’d rather be real than right” and “Connecting the dots to ask a good question is enough to keep me in the conversation.” Over time this mantra, as well as the ability to notice moments where the old pattern began to reassert itself, allowed Aarush to relax and be more confident. Confidence was the catalyst for removing the authenticity filter that was diminishing his impact.
To map your own trip-wire pattern and discover your authenticity filters, follow these instructions:
• Focus on one improvement you want to make as a leader, then answer the question: What’s getting in the way of making the change?
• Write up a step-by-step list and document the sequence of actions that typically occurs and prevents you from making the change.
• Edit the sequence until it feels accurate and consistent with your experience.
• Answer the question: What can I do differently to shift the pattern?
• Once you have an answer, identify the step where you can apply that shift and begin making the change.