By Brianna Valleskey
Look, I totally get it — “authentic leadership” sounds like the latest, trendiest, buzziest, fluffiest idea to come out of Silicon Valley.
But after the fallout of events like Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress for Facebook’s failure to protect user data, Theranos CEO Elizabeth being accused of fraud, and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver (just weeks after a highly publicized sexual harassment allegation by a former engineer), this concept is more important than ever. We need to demand more honesty and courage from ourselves and our leaders. We must do better.
Fostering authenticity as a business leader, however, is complex. As London Business School professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra explains in a Harvard Business Review article, people in leadership roles sometimes struggle with maintaining a balance.
“To be authoritative, you privilege your knowledge, experience, and expertise over the team’s, maintaining a measure of distance,” she says in the HBR piece. “To be approachable, you emphasize your relationships with people, their input, and their perspective, and you lead with empathy and warmth.”
Personally, any leader who works at being approachable automatically earns my respect (and therefore, my adherence to their authority). But I recognize that particular insight comes from focus group of one. So I’ll explore the topic further.
The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center recently held a panel about this very topic, featuring two badass female leaders: Meredith Davis, Head of Communications for The League, and Sara DeForest, VP of Marketing at HYP3R.
(Full disclosure: Sara is my boss. She’s a phenomenal, fearless leader and recently wrote a piece about her approach to authentic leadership that you should definitely check out.)
The panel was pretty casual, but there were some powerful takeaways. Here’s what I learned.
Know who you are.
This isn’t just about your name, or your gender, or your job title, or your marital status, or your credit score, or the number of times you’ve rewatched all nine seasons of “The Office.”
This is about your soul.
“It all starts with know what your values are: Who are you? What is your mission?” Sara said during the panel. “Knowing what you stand for.”
There are three important elements to this statement: Who you are, what you stand for, and what your purpose is on Earth.
Who are you? Is your ideal Saturday spent painting miniature Warhammer models? Awesome! Are you a restless, wanderlust-filled traveler? Very cool. Do you love Soulcycle? Fine! I don’t care! Just embrace it! And--more importantly--be honest with yourself about it.
Next is what you stand for. Is there an enduring idea (or ideas) that drive your day-to-day actions?
I believe that words are the most powerful tool we have--capable of rallying people to war and making them yearn for peace. I believe that black lives matter. I believe in women’s rights, LGTB rights, workers rights, refugee rights, clean energy, recycling, teaching art in schools, universal background checks; that simply believing in someone can change their life; that the most important person to love in the world is yourself; and that a little humanity can go a long way.
Finally, why are you here?
The fun thing about purpose is that it can be whatever you want it to, like …
Meredith knows her purpose. Without skipping a beat, she declared that her mission is to mission is to give a voice to sex, dating and relationships to people in her generation. Boom! I love it. Short and sweet. Your life’s purpose doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be true to you.
Deep in my soul I know that my purpose on earth is to write and to help people. That’s it. And a lot of things fit those criteria, so I’m able to stay committed to my mission and still remain flexible in my approach.
Or, instead of having one overarching life purpose, your life may be comprised of a series of mini-missions. That’s ok, too! Also, your mission can absolutely change over time. What’s purposeful for you today may not be in ten years. Go with the flow. The universe tends to unfold as it should.
Be that person.
So you know who you are--good! But are you able to outwardly convey that? If you can’t communicate who you are effectively, Sara explained, it’s going to hinder productivity. But being true to yourself self doesn’t mean being constantly vulnerable or spilling your guts. It involves exercising different facets of your persona in various situations.
“I feel like people are always surprised when they find out I do comedy, but it’s an aspect of who I am,” Sara said. “There are different parts of our personalities that flourish in different environments. Who I am on stage isn’t necessarily who I am at work, but it’s still all me.”
Sara added that you also need to ensure whatever work environment you choose to be in also aligns with you you are. She consistently invites our team to come to her comedy shows, and I think it’s amazing (both because I love comedy and seeing everyone’s human side creates stronger bonds).
Meredith made a great point that sometimes being purpose-driven can also mean putting your company’s goals before your own personal mission. She cited an example from her first year at The League, when she owned the customer support function. The dating app was getting a lot of emails from the LGBT community, who wanted to be able view both men and women in the community (but select different preferences for men than for women).
“I wanted to help! Let’s change the roadmap and make this happen!” she exclaimed. “But I realized that we only had so many engineers, and that the long-term goals of the company needed to not focus on this at the moment.”
Instead of pushing the product team to make a change that aligned with her goals, she choose to be relentlessly scrappy and help those users find a workaround. THAT is dedication to both your company and your customers, ladies and gentlemen.
Build (really) genuine relationships.
For Meredith, this is all about the little things--like having your coworkers know what you like or what you do on the weekends. She encourage managers to really understand what their direct reports find valuable.
“I think having authentic leadership in a company also means allowing people to progress in what they really want to be doing,” she said. “Maybe they don’t want to be at your company for another year or two. So we sit down with them and help them make career plans, while they’re still at The League.”
This is super smart, and something LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about in his book, “The Alliance.” Millennials are mobile; they probably won’t spend 15 or 30 years with your company. But if you’re willing to invest in their overall career path (rather than only what you can get from them in this current role), you’ll actually foster more loyalty and trust. It shows team members that you care about them as people (and not just work machines).
Another idea Meredith brought up was Creative Fridays, where team members can work on whatever creative things they like that are related to The League (Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talk about a similar idea in their 2004 IPO letter). I think this is great (despite the large amount of criticism surrounding the idea) because it brings an element of autonomy to a person’s role.
Meredith also talked about being positive, acting as a cheerleader for everyone in your organization and encouraging people to share ideas. In the same breath, however, she emphasized the importance of staying grounded. Sara echoed that sentiment, adding that staying grounded involves surrounding yourself with genuine people and making sure you have a good support network of people who will give you honest feedback.
“For me, building a great network starts with my team: making sure we have a good culture, making sure we make time for brainstorming sessions,” Sara said. “I learn a lot from my team. We all have different skill sets, and I think we compliment each other that way.”
Hearing that from your boss = #AlllTheFeels. [Cut to a shot of me in the audience literally holding back tears.]
Grow, evolve, adapt
Authentic leadership is an ongoing process. Organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra highlights this in her HBR article.
“The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are—doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become,” Herminia shares. “Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes—in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact—often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.
Sara specifically touched on adapting to diverse communication styles. She’s a words-based person (like me), accustomed to digesting information through the written word. Our CEO, however, is very much a visual learner. So Sara had to learn how to communicate what our team was working on and accomplishing in a very visual way, even getting as granular as learning how to make incredibly aesthetically pleasing presentation slides. But that’s what it takes. And that’s how you stay true to your authenticity but also accommodate others.
As with all growth, a journey of authentic leadership means you may not recognize the person you were a year or two ago
“Being a leader evolves over time. The leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader I am today. And the leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader The League needs today,” Meredith said.
A final tidbit from Meredith that I loved:”Empowering leadership in all facets of an organization is really crucial.” Preach, woman. My boss (Sara) does a marvelous job of entrusting each member of our team to truly own their work and be an expert in what they do. That combination of confidence and respect from a leader is magic, and motivates me to do my best work every day. I highly recommend it.
By: Brianna Valleskey
How does one even begin to describe Michelle Obama? Lawyer. Activist. Feminist champion. Wellness crusader. Mother. Education advocate. Role model. Beacon of grace. Oh! And, of course, the former First Lady of the United States.
HubSpot’s INBOUND had its biggest day ever when the conference hosted Michelle as a keynote speaker this morning. Thousands of attendees woke up before the crack of dawn to get through stadium-level metal detectors at the conference center, secure an actual seat in the main stage auditorium and wait for hours just to hear the former First Lady speak. Ms. Michelle Robinson Obama did not disappoint.
In addition to sharing feelings on being in the spotlight and transitioning out of the White House, Michelle opened up about what it means to know yourself and be truly authentic. Her ideas were deeply moving (like people-crying-the-audience moving). I couldn’t not write about it. So here’s some motivation from the icon, herself, on living a life that’s genuine to you.
How to Be Authentic (Courtesy of Michelle Obama)
Do not let your voice be silenced.
Michelle’s currently writing a book. As she’s been collecting stories of her life for the book, she realized that a narrative starting to emerge: believing in your authentic self.
“Who I am, I was that way at three [years old]. I was a loud mouth. I was confident in myself,” she said. “If I was successful, it’s because of that. I was always Michelle Robinson Obama."
Michelle never tried to be anybody else. But not everybody is tapped into their authentic selves like that. Some of us have been taught that our opinions are less valuable. Women, especially, who have sat in a classroom, in a boardroom or around a conference table can relate to this. Women have been socialized to sit there and be quiet, she said. They think 12 times before opening their mouths. There’s so much that goes on that shushes women in the world, but it often happens in subtle ways.
“We can look at ever sector and every industry and find ourselves quietly letting our voices become invisible,” she said. “We can’t afford to just sit by.”
The key to not letting your voice be silenced is to love yourself. If you don’t like who you are, it’s easy to let people walk all over you. Michelle urged people to not only love themselves, but ask what it is about them that makes their opinion less valuable. Challenge the status quo. Understand your innate self-worth.
Do not live without empathy; without compassion.
Like every political figure, Michelle and her family have undergone loads of criticism. You can get past it by distinguishing between productive criticism and pure craziness (the latter of which is usually pretty easy to identify). But fame is a monster. Michelle explained that when you’re famous, people feel like they have the right to walk right up to you on the street and say anything they’d like. It doesn’t bother her as much as it likely bothers her kids.
“When you’re a grownup, what other people say about you doesn’t matter. You know who you are,” she said. “But when you’re young, and you don’t know who you are yet, it becomes difficult.”
Somewhere around 20-30 times a day, one of her children has to engage with a stranger who comes up, asks for a photo, shares an unwarranted opinion, etc. Michelle tries to be a model of grace for his kids. They see her reaction to all the fame as guidance.
“I think my kids are resilient enough to be empathetic to people, but it does take practice,” she said. “We all have to be a little empathic in this world. We have to exercise patience.”
Her advice: Take a moment to know yourself. Know your truth. Don’t let what other people say define you. Responding in anger might feel good in the moment, but it’s always better to handle people with kindness.
Do let your work speak for itself.
Michelle did not want to be a First Lady of slogans or symbolic gestures. It was important for her to enter the White House with a strategy and a set of initiatives that were part of that strategy. Even though every news story about her during that first year in office focused mainly on what was wearing, she didn’t feel the need to prove herself. She knew that her work would speak for itself; that people would come to know who she was through it.
“If you’re doing good work, and it’s having a good impact on people, all that other stuff will work itself out,” Michelle said.
And it did. Her initiatives changed our country’s dialogue around health. They moved the ball on nutrition and exercise, as well as created more conversations to enlighten people about what they’re putting in their bodies. But doing great work is about more than a legacy. It’s about how you treat the people around you (especially, those who work for you). Michelle loves managing people. Throughout her career, she has always treated her teams like family. That means asking how they’re doing, asking about their families and generally caring about their lives.
“You can’t get a job done with people and not recognize their humanity,” Michelle said.
Her philosophy of being a good manager is one of empathy, compassion and patience. Leaders shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re working with actual humans.
Do absolutely anything.
What did Michelle say that she learned in the White House? That she can really do anything.
“As a woman, as a minority, as someone who is tall, as someone who is different ― we are put down with messages in our heads of what we’re capable of doing,” she said.
She joked about how people would ask her how she learned to be the First Lady, as if she didn’t have an entire life before getting to the White House. Each blow, each negative comment she had experienced long before then had made her the strong woman she was by the time 2008 rolled around. She was ready for the challenge of being the First Lady.
“Life teaches you grace. It gives you that ability, when you encounter obstacles,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of obstacles. Those things make you stronger; make you better.”
It’s hard to not believe those words when coming from a powerful, incredible woman like Michelle. I can’t wait to read her book. Also, her favorite song off of the Lemonade album is “Love Draught.” YAS QUEEN.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.