"You can't do it that way!" said a newly ordained manager.
"Why not?" asked the operator.
"Because it's not going to work if you web the stock that way and run the press at that speed."
"Look, with all due respect, we used to do it this way all the time where I came from. It’s a different stock, this way will work."
"No. Don't. I'm your manager. You have to do what I say, so don't."
"Whatever," replied the operator and he webbed the stock through the machine as the manager had first explained.
Sure enough, not five minutes later, the print was not coming out with the quality they needed. The operator approached his manager, and, instead of admitting defeat, the manager loaded a blamethrower right onto his shoulder and started launching blame everywhere: the operator, the stock, the press, the client, even the business they both worked for. One place he never aimed it…himself.
Time and again I've seen leaders not admit to defeat. It's like they have an image in their head of what a leader is supposed to be like and that leader doesn't make mistakes. I'm sure we've all worked for or at least heard of this type of ego-driven leader. I'm also sure most of you reading this book right now are thinking that you've never been and never will be this type of leader. Unfortunately, I have, and, maybe, if you're honest with yourself, you have too.
Fake it till you make it doesn't work!
When I first stepped into the role of being a principal over an 800-student junior high school, I felt like I was on top of the world. 32 years old, leading just about 100 staff members and one of the toughest schools in the district. Much younger than any other principal around, I knew I had something. I had conjured up in my mind exactly what the ideal leader looked like. Years of working under excellent principals, a decade of studying leadership, and story after story of great leaders, I had taken the very best of everything I saw, read, and heard and created the ideal leader. This is the person I aspired to be every day. This is the person that I compared myself with, it's who I tried to project, and some of the time, it is exactly who I thought I was.
Then, in year two, it all came tumbling down. People started to see the real me. They saw my flaws and weaknesses. They got upset at my unwillingness to admit mistakes. They were confused about my continual reliance on my title. But they sensed something even more. They couldn't shake the feeling that something with me was not quite right. It was as though the person I was showing on the outside was very different than the person I was on the inside. And they were right! Truth be told, I was faking it almost every single day.
I so wanted to be successful. I so wanted to be a leader that people liked. Therefore, every day I went to work and I "faked it." I pretended to be that ideal leader. And why not? Haven't you been told over and over again to just "fake it till you make it?" Well, that is exactly what I was trying to do. Unfortunately, when it comes to leadership, the idea of faking it till you make it is 100% completely false.
Perhaps there was a day when leaders were expected to be "tough as nails." Maybe there was a time when you "couldn't let them see you sweat." If those times did exist, that ship has certainly sailed on. Our employees don't care about some leader high on ego. They want to see someone who is real. They crave to recognize that we, their leaders, are just like them…full of shortcomings, fears, and anxieties. Pretending to be anything different drives a wedge between them and us.
Being real gets results
As I've studied leadership for the past several decades, I've noticed a very interesting pattern. Going back to the '80s and '90s, almost every book you could find on leadership was really a management book. These books focused on processes (think Toyota Way or Six Sigma) and put the leader as the authoritative head of any team or organization. The principles in the latter 20th century emphasized control, top-down directives, and allegiance to authority. Then, society wisened up. The research and popular belief systems of the 2000s were all about certain characteristics that great leaders should possess. Leaders should be visionary, charismatic, and inspiring. They need to be critical thinkers, be able to forecast the future, and be creative. They should possess strong strategic and communication skills. They have to be dependable, responsible, ….and the list went on and on and on.
A clear example of this is when I was going through the educational leadership program to get my principal's license. They had a list of 27 competencies and 62 sub-competencies that all principals should possess. 27 competencies and 62 sub-competencies! Did they honestly think there was a single person in this whole world that possessed every one of these or was their desire to make us feel like we'd never measure up? Honestly, they probably were highlighting the skills that are needed as a principal, but in striving to attain these skills I had lost myself and became a fake version of myself.
Today, looking at our current and future generation of workers, they want something different. They are not interested in following leaders that "don't sweat." They are not impressed with those that can command and control. No, what today's workers want is someone they can connect to and that means a leader that is real.
No doubt Oprah Winfrey is one of those types of leaders. In fact, much of her success has come from her ability to be truly authentic with her audiences. It took a lot of courage for her to do this, as she started during a time when we wanted strong, steady voices. Instead, she walked out on stage and gave us a voice of uncertainty. She opened her closet to let us see all of her skeletons. And what did America do…we fell in love with her for her willingness to not be fake.
Elon Musk is another example of an influencer who got there by being himself. If you watch Elon, you'll quickly realize that he's not your typical leader. In fact, some would say he's not a very good leader at all, and this includes himself. In a July 2021 tweet, he stated, "I don't want to be the CEO of anything," and later added that "I rather hate it and I would much prefer to spend my time on design and engineering." From <https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-58035124> Despite this, he is leading one of the most valuable companies on this planet. Why? Well, for starters he's crazy smart. But I also believe that what you see on TV, what you read on Twitter, and what you observe at press conferences is the real Elon, and people connect with that. He does nothing to hide who he is, but rather confidently stands before any audience and shows up as himself.
In short, if you want to be a great leader, stop faking it! Work dang hard, follow the principles of this book, and then be real. Your people are hoping and expecting that you do this.
Uncommon leaders who embrace who they truly are, follow three core principles: authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability. To help you remember these three, they form the acronym ATV. In today's working world, if you really want to move people, if you are looking to take people to new heights, then you need to use your ATV.
I define authentic leadership and simply having your actions match your values. CVS pharmacies are located in almost every community across this great nation. Several years ago they recognized that their actions were not matching their values. You see, they have a mission statement that says, "helping people on their path to better health," yet they sold tobacco-related products. Some of their top leaders thought, "how in the world can we be helping people on their path to better health if we keep selling cigarettes?" A valid question and one which many of their leaders started questioning. With a desire to be more authentic, they decided that they were going to stop selling tobacco-related products. Their investors went berserk. Every one of their 2,800 stores sold about 700 packs per week. This question of authenticity was a 2 billion dollar question and the investors were not happy to be considering such a change. Nonetheless, the leaders pushed forward and on February 1, 2014, CVS pharmacies stopped selling tobacco-related products. Sure enough, their stock dropped…from $66.11 to $65.44. It recovered the next day. 18 months later it had more than doubled.
Are there areas in your life or your leadership where your values don't match your actions? If you don't know, it may be because you are not clear about your values. If this is you, go back to the previous chapter and determine your values. If you still don't know, tell people what your values are and then have them give you feedback to see if you live according to these values. The more aligned you are, the more authentic you will be.
Transparency seems like it is something that has been demanded over and over again during the past couple of decades. We want to know how we are being charged in the hospital, we desire to see the tax returns of our elected officials, and we continue to demand data and facts in order for us to give our support. When it comes to transparency as a leader, there are two places you can stand: on the end of people demanding it of you, or on the end of giving it freely. One way or another, people are going to get it…so why not choose to give it first.
I know this may seem hard. I know you're thinking that there is so much that you shouldn't tell your employees. I know it may be embarrassing, it might cause you to admit weaknesses, or it might be outright scary, but do it anyway. Seriously, of all the faults in the leaders that I work with this is the easiest one to overcome. Start sharing more information. When you make a decision, explain the details as to why that decision was made. When you get the quarterly reports, send these to everyone…even if they aren't pretty. When big changes are on the horizon, choose to share information earlier rather than later.
In my struggles of being the principal I thought I should be, I continued to hide or cover-up information that was bad. I avoided the brutal facts over and over again. The trick is, my staff knew that things were not good and by me covering it up, it eroded trust between me and them. Once I humbled myself enough, I started to share everything with my employees. I thought maybe they would get upset, I thought maybe I shouldn't trust them with the information, and I thought that perhaps this would cause our school to get even worse. I was wrong on all accounts. Embracing the brutal facts and constantly being open and sharing information helped me develop stronger relationships with my staff and moved us towards turning the school around.
Out of the three principles of ATV, this one is the hardest. Start with the definition from Oxford: the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Yea, sure, let's walk into that every day, right? Wrong. Why would anyone want to expose themselves willingly to being attacked or harmed? We wouldn't do it while scuba diving with a threat of sharks. We've spent billions to ensure it doesn't happen to us on airplanes. There's even a good chunk of Americans that sleep with a loaded gun under their bed, ensuring that they are not vulnerable at home. Yet, the latest trends and research are showing that influential leaders regularly open themselves up to the risk of emotional harm.
The ironic thing about vulnerability is that often it actually makes us stronger. After I had asked lots of questions and realized my shortcomings and areas of improvement as a principal, I decided to have a short, 10-minute staff meeting. I called all the staff together into one room, I shared with them that I knew things were not going well and that I also knew they knew things were not going well. I outlined the five core pieces of feedback that I heard, I admitted to the staff some of my weaknesses, and then I promised that I was going to intentionally work on three areas. Then, I released them all from the meeting. That was possibly the most difficult 10 minutes in my life. Seriously. I finished with a visible sweat mark down my back. So much for not letting them see me sweat!
Interestingly, from that moment on, things seemed to be a little different. It was like they were saying, "Oh, he knows. Great. We knew and now he knows and we know that he knows." Since we both now knew, we could start to make some changes. I had more support from people. Some even volunteered to help me in the areas I promised to improve in. It was as though a large barrier that separated my staff and I had been broken down. Furthermore, I could finally stop pretending. I could show up as myself. I didn't have to worry about hiding my weaknesses. I didn't have to stress over always being perfect. I could just be me, and this gave me a ton of freedom. Since I wasn't worried as much about what people thought of me, I could focus more on my people. I could pay closer attention when someone was talking to me. I could be more present in the minute-by-minute happenings of the school. This released so much stress, but it also filled me with so much more happiness. Sure, it was scary as heck to be vulnerable with my staff, but the rewards were not harming; rather they were healing.