Special thanks to Prof. Christopher Robichaud and Prof. Dana Born of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for their assistance in compiling this material, and their invaluable perspective on this topic.
Who are you? A pubic narrative exists, based on impressions, speeches, and appearances, but it rarely reflects who you are. As Plato asked, do you “know thyself?” There is a protective barrier between who you really are and the public profile your organization sees. A leader may try to act consistently with this public persona because “this is what a leader is like” even if it conflicts with who they really are as an individual. There is a struggle between who we are versus whom we believe we should be. “How can I be myself and still be an effective leader?” Authenticity sometimes means exposing your issues, weakness, uncertainties, and other human frailties.
How can I lead after that?
You must be you. Existential issues arise for any organization when the leader does not confront who he or she is. Thoughts, words, behaviors, habits, character, and destiny are a chain of causal reactions that will determine the fate of an organization. That destiny starts with the leader’s belief – his or her “True North” defining an uncompromising and unmovable direction.
True North is defined by integrity and is the centerboard from which you navigate. There are values you will always uphold and things you will never do. Ask, “Why am I?” The answer is you being authentic to who you are. You are an original, which means a leader will not be effective trying to be someone else, even if that person was effective with their own style. It is not your style. You lead from “the inside out,” revealing your values and integrity. This is your foundation and guidepost. This is your True North.
Leadership is both adaptive and authentic. Adaptive leadership means looking at circumstances and identifying what needs to be changed. Authentic leadership means projecting your true self into a situation and letting it guide your decisions. Adaptive leadership is “outside in,” and authentic leadership is “inside out.” Both are essential for an organization’s success and survival.
Answering “why Am I?” lets you be you, the most effective tool when dealing with the most important issues. Leadership fails when “you are not you.” Understanding yourself and your purpose, then putting that into action is a leader’s single greatest challenge. Self-assessment and reevaluation are challenging and easy to avoid. But, as Winston Churchill said, “the further you look back, the further you see.” A leader must look at himself or herself to understand what you bring to the situation, constantly reevaluate and learn. Most importantly, seek to understand your purpose and follow your “why.”
The Greater Purpose
Your role is enabling your team to work for a greater purpose. In the end, an effective leader essentially shares leadership when there is a common purpose because everyone has agreed on and is working for a greater cause. Now, the leader’s inner narrative is unleashing his or her true self. This is where leaders have the biggest impact – authenticity driving singular purpose creating the greatestimpact.
Many times, leadership is about managing disappointment. Rigorous and detailed planning needs to be changed often. Change may not mean failure, but it often generates disappointment. As Dwight Eisenhower recalled in planning the D-Day invasion, “it was the most thoroughly and extensively planned human endeavor up to that point in history. As soon as the invasion began, the plan needed to be thrown away. Everything could have gone sideways if we did not manage that disappointment well.” Or as Mike Tyson puts it more succinctly, “every fight plan is great until someone hits you in the face.”
Managing disappointment is an underestimated and essential component of leadership. The capacity to understand how to deal with disappointment and embrace doubt as your organization progresses is fundamental to leadership. If a problem requires an algorithmic solution (a component is not working, the new process is inefficient, etc.) it’s more like an engineering problem and can be framed and solved fairly effectively. Leadership is needed when there is no formula and an uncertain (or unknown) outcome.
Leadership challenges often require improvisation, a high level of tolerance, and fortitude. Stick with your values but understand what needs to be changed. New decisions create uncertainty. Brace the organization for it because uncertainty will linger long after these decisions are made.
Managing disappointment also means managing loss. Assumptions were incorrect, situations change, markets change, individuals are unpredictable, and “unknown unknowns” arise.
Organizations change and difficult decisions mean change, and that can mean loss. It is not change in and of itself that bothers organizations (change for the good is usually welcome), it is the prospect of loss. Difficult environments cause loss, either to individuals or to the organization itself. We don’t always win. Managing loss is also critical.
Disagreements always arise, but leadership finds where we agree and holds people together with that foundation. Leadership communicates what we’re trying to do so we can find an agreement on how we can do it. Agreement requires different levels of abstraction to get to the level where we have common ground. We may disagree about what we are doing at one fundamental level, but a leader can bring the critical individuals up to a level of abstraction where we all have a common understanding of the organization’s purpose. Creating this common ground manages disagreements, and, ultimately, creates agreement or at least a constructive environment enabling the organization to move forward.
A leader works in the center of a contentious situation. Individuals are responsible for different, sometimes unrelated, components, and they may also have distinct perspectives about the different constituents of work required. But the leader is always the common ground at the center defining the problem and managing the work. Successful leadership is getting people to focus on the hard work that needs to be done, regardless of different responsibilities.
This requires moving slowly in order to go faster. Popular perspectives say to move fast and then move faster still to be effective. This is more inefficient than constructive. While companies need to move fast, it is even more important to reduce wasted moves. identify the best choices, and focus the organization.
Despair and Courage
Leadership requires an enormous capacity for despair. Leadership is lonely and decisions determine the organization’s future and some even its very existence. Leaders constantly grapple with choices that could end very badly. Even some of the most significant achievements have a traumatic history requiring a tolerance for despair and embracing uncertainty until ultimate success. This is unique to leaders. A leader cannot share his or her despair easily, if at all. A leader must be adaptive in order to restore himself or herself, as much as anything.
Learning to tolerate despair but not give up is a critical distinction among successful leaders. The emotional toll of countless challenges, trade-offs, and critical decisions is often ignored, but it is an essential component of leadership. Unfortunately, despair is a common denominator to all leadership experiences. Decisions have risks and sometimes the consequences can seem intolerable. In this context, leadership requires special qualities, and it is a unique challenge.
Leadership is a courageous endeavor. It may not seem heroic, but it requires fortitude, hard work, moral leadership, and a True North. Effective leadership causes real change while managing disagreement, disappointment, and despair. If courage and imagination fail, leadership fails. Leadership is a courageous challenge that often fails and faces sometimes seemingly overwhelming odds even when successful. That makes it heroic indeed.