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.
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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.