Originally published in Forbes 11/13/17
I’m not at all pleased to report this, but even the good ol’ word leadership has become something of a buzzword — a term people bandy about without considering its deeper implications. It’s the same thing that’s happened with words like creativity, innovation and disruption.
In an attempt to service the ever-increasing demand for web content, the pace of creating content has also increased. Sadly, this is all too often accompanied by a decrease in serious analysis. To attract as many readers as possible to their sites marketers tend to overuse certain words that emerge as more eye-catching than others. The trouble is those words get used so often they begin to lose their inherent meaning. This is a problem for both society and individuals when it happens with words that deserve more, rather than less of our attention. To help refocus, here are four pathways to evincing more authentic… (and here comes the buzzword again) —leadership.
Honesty means doing what you say you’re going to do, being where and when you say you’re going to be and crucially, admitting when you’re wrong. That last one is where we have trouble. We make the mistake of believing that our relationships are predicated on our being smart, being proficient, being clever, and being strong. We are deathly afraid of being anything other than right all the time, and so to protect that insane image of ourselves we are often less than honest. And while we might be attracted to those aforementioned qualities, none of them has anything to do with what makes a real leader. Authentic leadership insists that we don’t distort reality. It requires that we clarify rather than obfuscate the world around us; that we, by our honest appraisals of ourselves and others, help to order the burgeoning chaos in this ever more complex and ever more troubling world. Authentic leadership is the antidote to falsehood. It’s honesty that provides space for our hope, our love and our creativity to flourish.
Empathy is easy to talk about and very difficult to put into practice. It is by its very nature a state of mind, which contravenes a basic part of our humanity — our animal selves and our self-serving need to simply stay alive. This primal and instinctual part of us is not a bad thing, but because of its constant focus on “me” rather than “you,” it betrays the higher levels of humanity to which we must aspire. To be an authentic leader is to subsume the survival instinct within the more lofty aspiration of allowing others to grow and thrive.
This is where leaders are often put to the test. To be as concerned with the welfare of others as we are with ourselves requires a rewiring of our brains, a retraining of our minds and habits. It demands that we see the world less as a hostile place of paucity, and more as a nurturing place where love and abundance can flourish. Empathy of this sort is an ideal, and while we may never become totally empathetic, perhaps we can at least become mindful enough to judge whether we are on — or veering off — the pathway towards empathy at any given moment.
I once heard someone say of a man I admire, “Don’t make him out to be more than he is, he’s only human after all.” Taken in the light of empathy, and an awareness of what tremendous human-powers it takes to be truly empathetic, I now feel more, rather than less admiration for this particular “only human” man.
I had once been very angry with someone. Years had passed and still I was angry. I was convinced that she should have acted differently. Even after her untimely death, I remained so. About five years ago I visited her gravesite and had an epiphany. I began to see the anger I was carrying as a huge stone. I was standing at her grave in the falling light of a late summer afternoon and all of a sudden, almost reflexively, I let my hands go wide apart as if I were pantomiming the dropping of this metaphoric stone.
The whole thing probably took me no more than 10 seconds, but the image of the massive stone I’d been carrying, falling of its own weight, was enough to completely change my perceptions of this woman. Whatever anger I had, had fallen away in that moment, (along with my gaining a lucid sense of how insane it was for me to have needlessly carried that stone for so long). When I think of her today I understand that she did the very best she could. I have only feelings of love for her. Forgiveness is an extension of empathy. If we truly feel for someone else, we will surely understand that we too make mistakes — that we too, act out in anger, and that we too are overly self-protective. To say and to feel, “I see that quality in myself, ” is the cornerstone of strong leadership.
Our concept of leadership has been inverted. We’ve come to believe that leadership confers special advantages: The leader flies by private jet, she barks out orders and subordinates cower, he issues a decree and things get done —and quick! But the authentic leader holds in her mind a vision of a collective good and strives by her tireless effort to disseminate that good to others. She is motivated not by the benefits that will accrue to her but rather by the benefits that will accrue to others.
To some perhaps, particularly at this moment in history, this sort of thing might sound a little naive, or even ridiculous. But the fact that the pendulum has veered so far from this understandably aspirational vision of leadership shouldn’t matter one iota; the effort required in becoming a true leader still lies in recreating for oneself a true north, a focal point to constantly strive for.
Authentic leaders are rare for one reason: most human beings are hard-wired toward self-service, rather than self-sacrifice. Most humans, as we see on a daily basis, claw their way to short-term self-aggrandizement; authentic leaders, unlike most others, are extremely rare because they are concerned with long-term societal benefits.
When we see people evincing authentic leadership, we are inspired to act as they do, to reach for goals higher than we thought possible and to achieve great things, not for ourselves alone but for the greater good of all humankind.
Originally published in Forbes 11/13/2017