Leadership: Be Yourself

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One of the best memories of my MBA at Stanford is the class called Leadership Perspectives, led by the incredibly inspiring Joel Peterson and Chris O'Reilly. I heard from CEOs of some of the world's most iconic companies and from equally motivated and inspiring classmates on their leadership vision and styles. I learned that not only there are different approaches to leadership but that each of them can be equally successful.

So why do I continue thinking about leadership? First, I prefer to be intentional, rather than letting time pass by and define my leadership style. Second, I believe that not choosing a leadership style is like leading a company without a strategy. Consciously choosing a leadership style helps us to select a set of principles that can aid us in any future choices. Third, I find it very inspiring to reflect on what drives me and others to become who we are.

As a result, I would like to share with you my perspectives on leadership. My top aspiration is to become an authentic leader. I think that leadership roles can be rewarding, fun and something to be proud of, especially if done in a way that is wholly authentic to who I am. By the end of the article, I hope you feel enriched with a new perspective or energized to identify your personal leadership style.

Reflection is what gives meaning to life events
First and foremost, reflection on leadership is a very valuable exercise. As discussed in Leadership as a Habit of Mind by Mackoff and Wenet, reflecting on experiences is key to give meaning to life events. 'Events are like theater. They capture your attention, but they don't form you as a person. And you only get formed as a person by contemplating that experience, trying to give your experience order and meaning. (...) Reflection is an act of making meaning, a unique insight that organizes the present with an eye toward both the past and the future.' When I reflect on my own experiences, I often come to recognize patterns of leadership behind many actions that would otherwise pass unseen. I have learned to recognize leadership in the workplace, but also in other aspects of my life: leadership from friends, peers, and other people I interact with in my daily life. These examples are all equally important to identify what kind of leader I want to be.

There is a story behind any leader, not just luck
I often hear people say (as I'm sometimes guilty of doing) that an executive was lucky to get to a specific leadership position. Undoubtedly, luck can play a role in career progression (as conventional wisdom says 'being at the right place at the right time'). However, 'luck' is often over referenced. After all, it is the easiest way to explain the unknown. During business school classes with CEOs, I was often surprised to learn about the stories that brought them to where they are. First and foremost, CEOs are people. Behind those seemingly rational individuals, there are emotions, desires, and insecurities. Most importantly, behind those leaders there are often stories that go far beyond what you can find on a person's resume. It may be the story of their family, of a best friend, of a problem they have encountered, or of a region they grew up in. Those stories are the drivers behind what leaders aspire to do, behind their willingness to challenge the status quo and behind their energy to overcome any obstacles.

Family and friends are critical drivers for leadership
The people that surround us outside work are critical to our success. Choosing the right life partner is often the single most important choice in our life. Friends and supporters also represent a critical group of people. I was impressed by the habits of some executives of making always time for family and friends, despite their super busy schedules. As I reflected more deeply on these habits, I've come to no longer be surprised. The joy and energy that come from interacting with family and friends is often essential to give meaning to life and to find the energy to overcome obstacles and change the world. After all, leaders are people too.

Adaptability is the key to building followership
In 'What Got You Here, Won't Get You There', Marshall Goldsmith outlines another critical aspect of leadership: adaptability. What makes a leader successful is his or her ability to adapt to different people. One of the key challenges inherent in human nature is the mentality that something that went well should be done in the same way again. However, the ability to discern what truly should stay the same from what should be changed is a key attribute of leaders. For example, an excellent analyst promoted to manager may have the tendency to micro-manage the new analyst, ensuring the output is as good as the one he or she used to produce. This behavior may result in lack of empowerment and overall unhappiness of the analyst. Or the same manager may deal with a different analyst that actually wants to receive more hands on help and would benefit from additional attention. What is unique to strong leaders is their ability to effectively adapt to followers, ensuring they feel empowered to produce their best results. Followers are people as well. They have their own objectives and ways of operating. Adapting one's style to empower them achieve their goals is what makes them followers, not just direct reports.

The answer is as simple as it is difficult: be yourself
In the paragraphs above, I argued why reflection is essential to make any meaning of leadership. I also argued that leadership is about people, about the stories behind them, about their family and friends, and about empowering other people. So what course of action should you take to succeed as a leader?

My aspiration is to be my authentic self. As my parents taught me when I was little, intentions will always come afloat. People will eventually understand someone's intentions. Being inauthentic brings a lot of questions and additional efforts. Would people find out who we really are? What would people want to hear? What if...? There are a lot of costs for being inauthentic, a lot of extra questions to consider, a lot of potential mistakes, a lot of energy that is wasted on something useless: pretending to be someone else.

In contrast, being authentic is about living the story that drives us as people. It is the version of us that our family and friends know; it is what makes you understand other people's needs better. As Oscar Wilde said, "Be yourself; everyone else is already taken."