Hand to your heart, what does being authentic mean to you?
Let’s get one thing straight. Being authentic is not a cop out for staying within our comfort zones and sticking to our impulses of protecting our very precious identities. Being authentic does not mean that we don’t evolve. Quite the contrary. We are not perfect but a constant work in progress. Situations where we are unsure of ourselves or our abilities to perform provide the perfect opportunity for us to grow and question who we are and how we want to develop. Life and work situations shape us. More often than we would like probably. They demand us to be courageous, to question who we are.
I learned the hard way that the toughest thing we need to do as humans (and what we really need to do as leaders!), is to take a deep look at who we are at the core. It’s rarely the easy route! Most often we choose to binge on Netflix, deep dive into our social media accounts (or others’), let ourselves get overwhelmed by workload and stress, all in an attempt to silence our inner voice. We pretend we don’t hear anything. On tough days I pretend too. I push that voice away.
Looking at ourselves is exhausting and requires a lot of mental space, so if it’s so damn hard why do we need to do it?
Because before we can commit to anything we need to commit to ourselves. We need to be aware of when we are being ourselves vs trying to be someone else or something we are not. Our happiness, growth, perspectives and ultimately our success (however we choose to define it) depends on it. Becoming aware, is what makes it possible for us to go into unknown territory. Life is a long journey of learning and we will keep discovering parts of ourselves that we today haven’t met yet.
Being authentic is not about knowing all of you, but understanding your foundations, and making conscious choices about where you want to be and the values you choose to live by. Being authentic is impossible if you don’t try to date yourself and spend your energy on you.
When we commit to something we don’t believe in, don’t speak up when we want to, live in fear of how others view us; we are not living up to our authentic selves nor our potential.
I learned the hard way (in my professional career) as I went from feeling like I was on top of the world to feeling completely lost. I went from being one of the first employees in a great company, and the first to create her own team, to a year later losing all of them. I lost everything I had nurtured, what I felt was my success, a reflection of who I was and what I was great at. I felt completely discouraged. We (the company) went through our first real restructuring (certainly not the last) and the one skill I had always prided myself in having; adaptability, proved to be a much harder skill to master than I could have ever anticipated. I spent a few weeks in denial and shock, focusing on my then team, their transition and well-being. I wanted to be a good leader, focusing on the road ahead and all the great doors this was opening. I certainly did not want to be a weak leader unable to adapt.
Weeks later, during an intensive 9 week leadership program in Colorado, United States, thinking I was moving on with a greater mindset, I found myself struggling. At one point, I was confronted about my well-being as my body language seemed to be clearly hiding something. I was sitting in a sharing circle with 6 other leaders and coaches, sharing my experience, when all my walls came crashing down.
As I looked around I realized that until that moment, I hadn’t really been breathing. I had been suppressing so many of my emotions. That realization made me cry.
They all looked at me smiling with empathy as I realized the anger and sadness residing inside of me. I was angry and sad, but mostly at myself. Because I lost my voice in the process of losing my team, and what felt like, at that time, my whole world.
Through it all, there were only two things that really resonated. Honesty and authenticity. Being authentic for me meant accepting the pain and my emotional process, as well as realizing the incredible strength that lies in that and the path it created for me going forward. I knew I couldn’t move on without opening up to the people around me at work (my superiors), to those who in the end had more power than me, but to whom I needed to be true with. In the U.S I was in a safe environment, far away from my reality, with people who knew nothing of me, my company or anyone I know. There was no judgement, no risk of saying the wrong thing. No consequences.
Here, back home, it was different. I knew I was putting myself at risk. It’s like a relationship. You open your heart and you become vulnerable, at risk of getting hurt. At work you risk getting dismissed, disliked or worse; fired. So most of us don’t put ourselves at risk. And it’s a shame.
My experience was my opportunity for growth. I made peace with my fear of not being good enough or strong enough, and I put all my cards on the table. I owned every single one of my emotions and communicated them (with clarity, calm, thoughtfulness and respect) to the few that needed to hear it. As I expressed myself, shared my feelings of loss, sharing that it hadn’t been easy to be a leader through the process, my difficult emotions turned to relief. You never know what reactions you will encounter, but I remember for a moment not caring. I had found myself again. Not the exact same person but a person that had learned and grown.
Being authentic does not mean kicking and screaming when things don’t go your way. But by acknowledging not being okay when big change occurs, more often than we think, we speak for so many others who feel the same way and who often don't feel they have a voice.
That was my experience, and quite a humbling one. By embracing being uncomfortable, I embraced my own personal growth and the impact I was able to make as a leader. It opened me up to change and boosted my confidence.
For you being authentic might be different, and you will always have different opinions about how true or vulnerable you really can be in a professional setting (without putting your career at risk). Only you can figure out the path you want to take. You can read leadership articles every day for the next year and come to the same conclusion that there is no right way. But there is your way. You need to be in a place that is right for you. If you haven’t found it yet you will.
At the end of the day an authentic voice doesn’t owe anything to anybody. We all, at the core, know what is best for ourselves. It’s just about having the courage to listen. So tune in and start listening. I guarantee you’ll empower others in the process.
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