Searching for authenticity

A few weeks ago, I was in Toronto for a three day workshop on leading remote teams. My staff is spread across the country, and that has been REALLY challenging, so I’ve been looking for inspiration on how to be more effective at it. Unfortunately, though, this was not the right course for me. Although I tried to make the best of it and struggled to find some takeaway knowledge that made the rather significant investment worth it, in the end I had to admit that it didn’t move me any further in my journey as a leader.

For one thing, it was targeted at leaders who are newer to it than I am (I’ve done this for 10 years already), and more specifically, leaders who work primarily in technical and production fields (task-oriented leadership – very different from my line of work). On top of that, throughout most of the course, “remote teams” referred primarily to teams that you’re leading in other countries because your company has chosen to outsource to places where there is cheaper labour. That was a particular struggle for me, because some of my work (and personal passion) involves seeking justice for some of those people providing that cheap labour who are unable to feed their own families. (The last day of the course, just before catching an early flight, I couldn’t stand it anymore, and let flow a fairly strong response when someone implied that ‘we are saving the poor downtrodden masses by giving them jobs and teaching them the value of OUR culture over their own’.)

As I sat and doodled my way through the workshop, I realized that there was a deeper reason that none of it was resonating for me. I just wasn’t connecting with the instructor. It wasn’t just that he’d spent most of his career in the technical field and spoke a different “language” – it was deeper than that. On the last day, it finally occurred to me – he just wasn’t raising my level of trust, partly because he seemed to have less leadership experience than I do, but mostly because he didn’t seem REAL enough to me. Most of his stories were about general leadership ideas – few of them were about his own grappling with tough situations. He hadn’t even written his own material for the course – he was regurgitating someone else’s work. The bottom line was that he lacked authenticity.

When I got back to the office, I found a package on my desk. The book I’d ordered (based on my friend Susan’s recommendation) had arrived… THE AUTHENTIC LEADER! How appropriate!

This past weekend, I devoured the book like an addict looking for a fix (or a frustrated leader looking for inspiration). It was EXACTLY what I needed. I can hardly describe what this book did to me. It fed those hungry places inside me. It inspired me, yes… but more importantly, I think, it affirmed me. It made me stop and realize that “Damn it – I’m on the right track after all! I don’t need expensive workshops to teach me new techniques! I just need to keep going deeper in my path toward authenticity.”

“Simply put, being an authentic leader is synonymous with being oneself. It is that simple, but it is also that difficult. When deciding to lead, be true to self. Being true to self is being in a most powerful place. The power in leadership is not in being right, but in being real.”

I’ve read a lot of leadership books, and I’ve used many of them in teaching leadership workshops, but this is one of the first that I’ve read that made me feel so affirmed while still inspiring me on to greater heights. Often, when you read a leadership book, at first you feel inspired and excited, but then reality sinks in and you realize “I can NEVER meet those unrealistic expectations! I’ll NEVER be an effective leader!” I remember teaching a workshop once, based on “The Leadership Challenge” (a great book, but with some REALLY high expectations), and saying to the participants “this part right here? Ignore it. It is basically impossible and unrealistic and borderline STUPID. Don’t even bother trying it because you will set yourself and your team up for failure. Set more realistic goals than this if you want to succeed.” The workshop participants breathed a collective sigh of relief. I don’t think anyone had every told them to “ignore something the book/authority says” before.

This book is very different from that. It teaches that the road to more effective leadership is the road to authenticity. Spend LESS time trying to figure out the right techniques and skills for being a good leader and MORE time trying to figure out how to be authentic and how to inspire others to do the same. “An authentic journey is a path to finding your voice, to discovering your highest aspirations and purpose, to living an honest life, and to bringing your passions and gifts to the world in the form of service of others. … We see the ultimate purpose of leadership as finding and following one’s own authentic voice and then inspiring and supporting other people to find and follow theirs.”

This is the kind of book that everyone should read. If the term “leader” scares you, it shouldn’t. It’s not about positional leadership, but more about people who feel some kind of calling to inspire others and make a difference in the world. (One of the authors, David Irvine, has written another book called “Becoming Real: Journey to Authenticity”, which I assume is equally good and less about leadership, if that’s what you’re looking for. I’ve also read another book of his called “Simple Living in a Complex World”, which had a pretty profound effect on me 10 years ago.)

Though I recognized it at the time, it was good to have further affirmation that my bold step a couple of months ago was EXACTLY what my team needed. Now I just have to keep plugging away at it to make sure I don’t lose the momentum.

Things I’ve learned (and re-learned) in the past few days

Rain and wind are ONLY fun if you’re in a warm place watching through a window, NOT if you’re sitting on the side of a soccer field.

Saying good-bye to the same person again and again gets old. Quickly.

Sending three kids back to school is FRICKIN’ expensive. New outfits, new shoes, school supplies, school fees, lunch fees – YIKES!

Signing two kids up for indoor soccer just after you’ve finished paying for their return to school can be downright painful.

Going grocery shopping after the above two expenses can be very nearly impossible.

Household renovations or decorating projects will always take at least twice as long as you originally estimated.

Wearing sandals when it’s 5 degrees (Celsius) and windy is stupid.

Even with a “resistant to change” child, the return to school gets easier as they get older.

Drinking hot chocolate while sitting at the side of the soccer field in the wind and the rain makes you feel only marginally more comfortable.

Chasing half a dozen napkins (that came along with your hot chocolate and muffins) across the soccer field when the wind picks them up can be embarrassing. Especially when you’re wearing a poncho that flips up in your face every time you try to bend down to grab a dancing napkin.

Folding your lawnchair with a cup of hot chocolate still in the cup holder is not a smart idea.

Nutella on toast makes nice comfort food at ten o’clock at night when you’ve been watching soccer in the rain, trying to scratch together a few dollars to buy groceries, saying good-bye for the umpteenth time, and you didn’t have time for supper.

So what we’ve established so far is that I am broke, stupid, clumsy, and cold. Yep, it’s a good day to be alive. Thank god for Nutella.

Bold or mediocre?

The cursor is hovering over the send button. I’ve re-read the e-mail about 4 times, tweaking it here and there, trying to make it sound less judgmental and more friendly. How do you write a friendly “your services are no longer needed” e-mail?

After a frustrating few months of way too many delays, lack of phone calls to warn us of delays, poor communication, etc., I find I need to end a working relationship with a graphic designer. He does good work, but unfortunately, he is completely unreliable. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a project that he promised to finish before I left for Toronto, and I never saw a thing or heard from him about why it wasn’t ready.

I hate ending relationships, even when they’re working relationships which shouldn’t really impact me personally. But sometimes it needs to be done. I’ve let this one go on for too long already. Now I just have to work up the courage to hit the send button.

As I was flying back from Toronto, after a somewhat disappointing meeting with my national staff, it occurred to me that part of my problem – part of the reason why I’m less effective as a leader than I could be – is that I lack boldness. Like the cowardly lion in the wizard of oz, I need more courage.

It’s true. I know how to ACT courageous, by jumping out of airplanes and such, but more often than not, deep down, I’m a coward at heart. I cower from confrontation, I accept mediocrity from my staff because I’m afraid to challenge them, I let little conflicts simmer beneath the surface during team meetings because I’d rather not drag them out into the open, I don’t challenge my boss even though I’m sure there are some bold moves he’s avoiding which could make this a more effective organization, I don’t produce my best work for fear that it might not be accepted, and I allow the status quo to rule me because pushing the boundaries would be too uncomfortable.

A couple of things happened last week that revealed my lack of courage. One of them was the staff meeting, where mediocrity was the rule of the day because I failed to challenge the team or force them to confront their own resentments and reluctances. Another was an opportunity I let slip by because I was afraid of the consequences of taking action. Someone I know and respect wrote an article in a journal that questioned some of the things that we do as an international development organization. I sent him a personal e-mail, supporting what he said and expressing my heart. He wrote back and suggested that I send a letter to the editor of the journal as a response from me personally and the organization I represent, suggesting that he might be at least somewhat right in his critique. I declined his suggestion, because doing so would raise the ire of not only my boss but some of our major supporters. I had good reason for not doing it, but when I searched my heart, I knew that part of my reason was fear. I didn’t want to risk losing my job and ticking off the big donors. I shrunk away like the cowardly lion.

On Friday, riding the bus home from work, I almost burst into tears when it occurred to me that perhaps I am limiting my own potential and that of my organization’s by letting fear hold me back. If I were bolder, I’d stand up for what I believe in. If I were bolder, I’d challenge mediocrity.

Somehow, I need to find the boldness in me to confront my fears and speak up when things are not right. I’m starting with small steps. The first one will be to hit the send button. (Perhaps if I were truly courageous, I’d pick up the phone instead, but I’ll let myself get away with baby steps for now.) Mediocrity is not acceptable in people who provide service to us. I will strive for excellence in the people I hire.

I’m not sure what my future steps will be, but I know that this is something I need to confront in myself. I will confront mediocrity more often when I see it among my staff. I will confront it in myself. I will even try to confront it in my boss and perhaps among our major donors. I don’t want to be the cowardly lion any more.

If I can jump out of an airplane, surely I can be bold enough to slap mediocrity in the face.

Pin It on Pinterest