The below is Lesson 4 from our Leadership Lessons series.
LESSON THREE: It’s essential to be real
KEY QUESTION: How can honesty and vulnerability increase your leadership influence?
Who decided that leaders must have all the answers, always be right, and never be vulnerable?
I’d like to know who created this paradigm that has driven far too many leaders out of leadership.
Leadership is exhausting. Pretending is significantly more exhausting.
My Leadership Journey
I grew up watching leaders who always appeared supremely confident. It didn’t take me long to assign a connection between confident leadership and competent leadership. Granted, as a young leader just entering the marketplace, I didn’t see these confident leaders behind the scenes. Mostly I saw the public leadership moments — the ones where leaders made speeches and pronounced bold new agendas.
It was easy to associate leadership with boldness, unwavering direction, and complete comprehension.
This perspective on leadership is problematic, mainly because we can only see external confidence in others while inwardly seeing our shortcomings. I saw leaders seemingly with all the answers, but I knew I didn’t have all the answers. I saw leaders who were so externally confident, but internally, I didn’t feel confident. I saw leaders appearing strong while internally knowing I felt weak.
Over time, seeing only the public side of others while knowing the internal struggles in me created a leadership identity crisis.
The psychological term is imposter syndrome. I am a natural-born leader. As a leader, I assumed from what I saw from other leaders that I must always have an answer, be ever bold, and project confidence no matter what. That’s what leaders do … until they emotionally can no longer.
I’ll save all the details for another article another day, but all this pretending, faux confidence, and needing to be correct eventually caught up to me. Emotionally, I was finished. The burnout I experienced wasn’t from overwork but from over pretending. Wondering if you belong or have what it takes to lead well is emotionally crushing.
Years of pretending forced me to take a month off to do some hard, internal, heart work. That month taught me so much about my past, present, and what I hoped to be true in my future. My month off led to a year of learning and, more importantly, unlearning. I had to learn myself – my true self. I was a natural leader for sure, but I had to learn some deeper leadership lessons.
Great leaders don’t:
- Have all the answers.
- Always know what to do.
- Refuse to acknowledge fear.
- Pretend to be in command of every situation.
You can be real or really pretend, but you can’t do both.
I’ve spent the last several years of my leadership journey attempting to be the most open and authentic version of myself. I decorated my office with vintage skateboards complete with skulls and other typical skater graphics. I added the Lego Harry Potter castle to my shelves (yes, the big one, if you’re wondering). I dressed the way I liked rather than what was expected of me by others. I kept it classy, but I also kept it real.
Basically, I stopped pretending to be what others thought a leader was supposed to be.
That journey took a long time. I couldn’t be the real me until I uncovered the real me again. And that took time. Years and years of pretending made the archeological dig for my full self difficult.
If you want to be a real leader, do these things immediately:
1. Find yourself, again.
You can’t be real if you don’t really know yourself. After years of playing the part o a leader, it’s time to let go of the picture and find your true self again. Remember that kid you once were? That’s was the full version of you — the version of you before you were “taught” how to be someone else. The kid in you knows who you are. As an adult, you’ve just forgotten.
Playing pretend as a kid prepares us to become an adult. Playing pretend as an adult keeps us from being an adult.
I’d encourage you to engage a leadership coach, counselor, or therapist. The longer you’ve pretended to be what you thought a leader needed to be, the more difficult it will be to rediscover yourself.
Real leaders allow themselves to be real people.
2. Prepare your heart to follow someone else’s lead.
We’ve so elevated leadership that followership seems like a loss. Not everyone is created to be a point leader. Yes, everyone needs to learn to lead themselves, but there is a difference between leading an organization and leading within an organization.
Not everyone is meant to be a point leader, and that’s okay. The world needs incredible organizers and orchestrators. Organizations need managers. I suspect there are many leaders who, if given a chance to know themselves and be honest with others, would admit they are playing a role they weren’t created to play.
3. Get comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
It’s time to disconnect great leadership from having all the answers. Great leaders are not confident in their intellect, but rather in their resourcefulness. Great leaders don’t have all the answers, but they know how to engage others who do.
Saying “I don’t know” isn’t a sign of poor leadership. What could be worse as a leader than pretending to have an answer that you don’t have? That’s exhausting. And, it’s poor leadership.
4. Allow your followers to know you – the real you.
Sure, oversharing can become a hindrance. That’s true for every person, not just leaders. But great leaders don’t remain hidden from their followers, either. Great leaders find a healthy emotional balance with their followers, allowing those around them to get to know the real them.
It may sound silly, but that’s partially why I hung skateboards and placed Harry Potter castles in my office. When people walk in, I want them to see things representing the real me. They are great conversation starters for sure. They are also physical representations of the real person behind the title and corner office.
5. Realize you aren’t fooling everyone anyway.
I hate to burst your pretending bubble, but others can see through the faux leadership confidence facade. You’re not fooling most of the people around you. Pretending is exhausting, and you will eventually be discovered. That’s why pretending is so exhausting. It’s why we feel like imposters.
The absolute sure-fire solution to imposter syndrome is internal and external honesty. We lie to ourselves more than anyone else, so we first need to become internally honest. Next, we need to lead from that internal honesty. Honesty destroys the imposter.
6. Redefine strength and weakness.
Great leaders discover their strength in their honesty. The superpower of great leaders is vulnerability. That’s a buzzword these days. Everybody talks about openness, but too few leaders are genuinely vulnerable because real vulnerability exposes us emotionally. When people get to know the “real” you, they may not like you. But, let me ask you a critical vulnerability question: How does it feel when people like the fake you?
People who love the pretend version of you don’t love you, which is emotionally painful. When I decided to become a more vulnerable leader, people rejected me, but they rejected the real me. I discovered that it is more emotionally taxing for people to love the pretend me than leave the real me.
Great leaders are real leaders. Being authentic takes guts. Honestly opens us to rejection. But it also opens us to acceptance. Real acceptance. The kind where you are fully known and fully loved. So start being real. Reject the facades. Apologize to those who you’ve faked. And, over time, the fruit of authentic leadership will be worth every drop.
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