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Fostering Authenticity in the Next Generation of Leaders
Fostering Authenticity in the Next Generation of Leaders
Dr. Kirk Wheeler

Whether you stroll onto the lawn for your news or get it on a screen, it is pretty evident that tomorrow's challenges will require a new breed of leadership. The challenges are myriad: social, educational, economic, and political. We are going to need leaders who know themselves well and who are willing to be bold and brave enough to meet problems and opportunities with integrity, grace and humility.

Gone are the days of donning the "leadership suit" and playing the expected and traditional role of the leader. As Robert Evans says in The Seven Secrets of the Savvy School Leader, "...the leaders of high-performing organizations are not 'stylemasters.' Rather, they tend to be people of strong character and strong commitments who maximize their strengths."

I, too, believe that true leadership has always required something more than a stylized set of leadership traits and skills. In fact, in our rapidly changing world, it may be more important than ever for leaders to know themselves – their strengths and core beliefs, as well as their vulnerabilities.

Recently, I've been asking myself how I can encourage others to lean into their genuineness – their own unique styles, strengths, and perspectives. I hope to lead by example, of course. I also want to share what I've learned through my own hard work, unique circumstances, and missteps, as well as wisdom gleaned through the generosity of mentors who have helped me along the path to authentic leadership.

It's natural for early-career leaders to feel that there is a set of tools to be mastered. But authentic leadership is not merely a series of boxes to check or a set of skills to accumulate. Don't get me wrong – there are certainly key tools and lessons that can help set up leaders for success. But leadership is also a mindset and a unique professional journey. It is a quest of self-discovery through which challenges, accomplishments, failures, and milestones become steppingstones along the leadership path.

Parker Palmer, in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, reminds us that "If you are in the room, your values are in there too...." I believe authentic leadership is about finding your own voice, understanding your passions and values, and recognizing how you show up in a classroom, a meeting, or the boardroom. Wherever you go, to put a spin on an old saying, there your values are.

Finding your voice and understanding your value system and passions are not easy quests. Yet, there are steps any aspiring leader can take to move along this path:

  1. One simple step – and this one is kind of simple, actually – is to write daily. I keep a five-year journal. Sounds daunting, I know, but bear with me. For each day, there is a short section – just a few lines upon which to capture the day. Accomplishments, reflections, gratitude. That's it. The magic is that each page holds five sections – each one reflecting one year of your journey. So, each year when writing my reflections or challenges, I have a glimpse into what I was thinking last year, the year before, etc. Magic. It's like a paper version of Facebook – memories pop up each year.
  2. This one is a little harder, but totally doable: write, publish, and present. Through writing and publishing, we engage in dialogue with others and we begin to better understand our internal leadership processes and perspectives. We clarify our own thinking and, in doing so, are better able to articulate our inner dialogue and approaches for others. There's nothing like having to share your ideas in writing or in front of an audience to bring clarity to our own ideas and practices. And keep it simple: blogs, posts, comments on other's work are all forms of writing and presenting our ideas.
  3. Tell your story. Okay, this one, while seemingly simple, is perhaps the hardest of all. It requires real inner work, vulnerability, and a willingness to share your inner dialogue. Still, I absolutely encourage current and future leaders to hone their personal and professional stories. Reflect on what defines you. Which stories best illustrate how your actions align with your beliefs? Perhaps, just as importantly, are there stories where your actions and beliefs didn't align? What happened? Which stories demonstrate your vulnerability? What stories illustrate professional growth through lessons learned? Through the sharing of stories, seasoned leaders can help future leaders understand that they don't have to be perfect. Sometimes our imperfections and vulnerabilities help us connect with others and can, in fact, become strengths. Within our stories are those valuable leadership skills and traits. It reminds us that true leaders never stop reflecting, growing, and learning.
  4. Create your own leadership brand. Get it on paper. Start small. Bounce it off others. Allow your brand to be organic – a "parking lot" where you can add new ideas, thoughts, and big questions. What do you stand for? What kind of leader do you aspire to be? What are your most important qualities? This inner work will help you align your action and words with your inner values. It will help build consistency and predictability in how you respond to others, crises, and opportunities. This is the foundation of integrity – alignment of our inner values and external actions. And integrity is the core ingredient for trust.

I am an educator and Head of School, so let's talk about authentic leadership in schools for a moment. Early in my career, a parent came into my office. Her child was struggling with a teacher, and it wasn't going well. There was no real relationship

While I can't say with certainty how that particular situation may have played out differently, I suspect that we could have found common ground sooner had I been able to first speak to the situation more authentically – that is, from my position both as a parent who'd experienced a very similar situation as well as a head of school. I could have led with empathy first and pursued solutions second.between the student and the teacher, and trust between the parent and teacher was at an all-time low. As a parent, one of my children had also struggled with a similar situation. But I wasn't comfortable straying from what I thought of as my role as a head of school. I remained focused on finding solutions, pointing out not only what the teacher might do to improve, but also the responsibilities of the student and parent. I wasn't yet able to see that what the situation needed was the kind of empathy that comes from a more personal and authentic perspective... from a parent who had also been there. Let's just say the conversation didn't go well. We both spent a lot of time repeating our points of view.

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey says, "A person has integrity when there is no gap between intent and behavior. And it is congruence...that will ultimately create credibility and trust. People who are congruent act in harmony with their deepest values and beliefs. They walk their talk."

This is authentic leadership. Leading with heart, courage, and clear values. Your colleagues, students, staff, and board want to know that you lead from a place of authenticity. They want to have a sense of you. While the process of becoming an authentic leader is a lifelong journey, getting there is mostly about being mindful and taking some essential steps and putting it all into practice – little by little, day by day.