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What Makes a Leader Truly Authentic & Why Does it Matter?
What Makes a Leader Truly Authentic & Why Does it Matter?
Dr. Kirk Wheeler, Head of School


I've been thinking a lot about authentic leadership: how it plays a big part in what we do here at St. Thomas School (STS) and why it feels important in the world today. When I think about what makes a leader truly authentic and why it matters, I begin at the end. For me, the why matters most.

In large part, the why is very simple: If you are – or aspire to be – a leader, you need to lead from a place that's deeply rooted in who you are. For instance, I can't be the same leader that one of my mentors was. At my core, I am who I am.

That's not to say we shouldn't study successful leaders, or that we can't continually add to the toolbox that is our core skills and competencies and work to recognize our go-to tools and the ones that may be underutilized or outdated. We should certainly do all of those things!

However, if we are going to be authentic, successful leaders, we need a deep understanding of who we are and what we believe. We have to do the inner work – as well as the edgework – to help us understand what drives us as leaders and what makes up our core beliefs and values.

To see how this plays out in other areas of life, we can think about the hiring process. If selecting the right candidate were as easy as finding the person with the CV or resume most closely aligned to a particular job description, hiring would be simple. However, it's far from it! Organizations are hiring the person, not just a set of competencies. Therefore, it is essential that organizations are not only able to discern core competencies, but also the authentic person.

Our values and beliefs, after all, are a big part of our authentic selves. Every leader, even a good one, won't be a fit for every organization. The magic happens when an organization's culture and the leader's values are woven together.

When I envision an authentic leader, I see a leader who leads with integrity, character, and empathy; a leader committed to serving and building enduring organizations; a leader with a deep sense of purpose; a leader true to their core values; a leader who displays courage and willingness to be vulnerable. Authentic leaders are not afraid to "stub their toes" or afraid of people seeing their learning and growth in action because they recognize the importance of the role learning and growth plays in service to the greater good.

Sounds simple, right?!

It certainly isn't. It can be a life's work to grow as an authentic leader because the fact is, none of us are superheroes. That's sort of the point for me, I think. We can't be afraid of growth and of sharing the journey – one that will certainly involve successes and failures – with the communities we serve.

Now that we've established the broad view why and what, I'd like to tell you a bit more about why this matters to me personally.

I started thinking about the importance of authentic leadership when I came out as a gay father and head of school five years ago. As often happens in that journey, I carried a lot of fear for how I would be perceived as a person in a leadership role. Working through that, I discovered that being vulnerable and open in an authentic, genuine way – obviously in an appropriate way within my role as head of school – was exactly what was needed. People appreciate knowing you on a human level, knowing how you think and what matters to you. All of those things augment and strengthen your leadership role rather than detract from it, and I have found great value in bringing my authentic self to my role as a leader at STS.

At STS, our work on mindfulness and social-emotional learning helps students begin to know themselves. That knowledge, coupled with the encouragement to take risks and make mistakes, helps foster a trust that students can bring their whole selves to the table. This kind of confidence – which is born of courage and vulnerability, not a false confidence masking a fear of mistakes – leads to true success. It grows leaders.

Not only is vulnerability courage, it is the birthplace of trust, innovation, learning, risk taking and having tough conversations.

Storytelling plays a key role. When we share who we are in story, we are not just relaying information – we are also sharing our cares and concerns, our vulnerabilities.

In students' earliest years at STS, this work is concrete. We give them opportunities in situations like "person of the week" to bring in artifacts that represent things that are important to them – maybe photos of their families or other things they might love. In subtle ways, they are learning to share themselves and also learning – "Hey, other people have favorite things too!"

Of course, as students move into our middle school leadership labs, they have opportunities to study and practice leadership, again, very concretely. They can also be a senator or a class representative actually having to practice what it means to be in a diverse group of people grappling with big decisions.

Being a leader is not only learning about yourself. You have to understand how others are different. It's not just about your values and the perspective from where you're standing. You have to be able to recognize that everyone has their own values and vantage points.

Authentic leadership, as I am learning, is truly a journey. It can start early, but if we are willing to be authentic leaders, we must continue to question ourselves and to grow. We must be willing to do our own inner work and, sometimes, to fail and to do so with vulnerability and, perhaps even, grace.

In that spirit, I'd love to continue our conversation about authentic leadership, about the ways we work to grow student leaders at STS and the ways that we can work to become more authentic leaders as school leaders, teachers, and parents. If we show up with the courage to be vulnerable and a willingness to work, we in turn convey to our students and children that they are worthy just as they are and that trying and failing is all a part of it. They don't have to be superheroes. They just need to show up – that is all we can ask of them.

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