My story begins as a child, sitting at the dinner table, listening to my father talk about “the bosses” and how cruel and dismissive they were. I knew even then that when I grew up, I would find a way to help leaders be more caring toward employees, more thoughtful and humane. In current parlance, we’d call it being more human-centered and authentic.
The term authentic leadership is overused nowadays, and tends to be met with an eye roll. Yet it is the best way to describe a way of being that has never been more indispensable than today.
A major milestone in my journey from the family dinner table to being a master coach
Many years ago, I got the chance to see authentic leadership in action. If you’ve never been in the presence of a grounded, centered, master leader, it is an experience unlike any other. This is a person who captures and holds the attention of others in non-obvious ways, and speaks with a wisdom that everyone recognizes. Someone who leads by being real and human at the core. Who leaves you with a desire to be more like them.
The encounter in question, the one that started me on a years-long learning journey to find the essence of such leadership so I could help others attain it, took place at a national convention of hospital trustees.
I was staff at the convention and assigned to facilitate a very large breakout group of trustees. It was a time when most trustees were men, leaders of industry, of the dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie variety.
Into this group walked a man in a tan corduroy jacket, open-necked shirt and soft shoes. He was very relaxed. One would have expected him to be ignored or dismissed by such a group at that time, just because of his appearance and soft-spoken manner.
Yet over the course of a 90-minute, very serious discussion, I watched more and more participants defer to this man, asking his opinion on every subject. His words and demeanor exuded humanity and wisdom. It was magnetic.
Those who have seen the film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid probably remember Robert Redford and Paul Newman asking, “Who are those guys?” That was me, after spending 90 minutes in this man’s company. The answer from the hospital association staff was: “We’re not sure who he is. Isn’t he amazing? We think he might be a Native American medicine man.”
Fast forward to today.
After years of researching and searching for the essence of authentic leadership and true executive presence, I have come to believe that it boils down to an ability to be self-aware and aware of others at the same time.
Being comfortable in your own skin in the present moment creates a nonverbal message of leadership.
As human beings, we innately recognize when someone is grounded and real. When they embody leadership, mentally and physically. That’s what my executive coaching work is all about.