According to the Harvard Business Review, when leadership researchers analyzed over 3,000 pages of transcripts conducted with leaders, the largest in-depth study of leadership development ever taken¹, can you guess what were the characteristics, traits, or styles that makes a successful leader?
It was not vision, or integrity, or passion. Nor was it confidence, charisma, nor interpersonal skills, although all these are important qualities.
Researchers were startled to find that instead, there was no universal characteristics, traits, or styles that makes a successful leader.
What do these great leaders have in common then?
After extensive interviews with individuals in leadership positions from a vast array of backgrounds, researchers found a pattern: great leadership emerged from life stories.
What this means is that leaders are constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories. When leaders understand who they are at their core, they understand the purpose of their leadership and learned that being authentic made them more effective.
This is encouraging news, because this means that you do not have to be born with the traits of a leader. You can discover your potential right now. As Young & Rubicam CEO Ann Fudge, said, “All of us have the spark of leadership in us…The challenge is to understand ourselves well enough to discover where we can use our leadership gifts to serve others.”
In other words, to discover your authentic leadership, you have to commit to developing yourself. You have to frame your life story and use your formative experiences to give meaning to your life and leadership.
Through my Integral Growth Model, I teach clients how to use mindfulness and breathing exercises to project a centered presence so they can be calm and reflective and become aware of their mental models.
By drawing a time line of key events in their life with introspective life-mapping exercises, they learn to examine their inner “scripts” – or, how they normally think in certain scenarios. Once clients see their own challenges and successes, they see what drives them to behave in certain ways, and learn to reframe it more positively.
I will give an example. One of my clients, an executive at one of the world’s top ten oil and gas companies, after a life-mapping exercise, realized because she was often rewarded for good grades in her upbringing, she valued academic achievement. This drove her to be result-oriented in her leadership approach rather than people-oriented, and subordinates saw her as distant and impersonal.
Through consistent practice of mindfulness and self-awareness, and recognizing the importance of a “softer” style, she reframed her mindset so she can connect more personally and socially with her staff – such as sharing challenges and personal stories, and initiating relationship conversations. After coaching work, team members left positive feedback that they felt valued and good working for her, motivating the team to higher levels of performance.
Understanding our life stories can help us become more personable and authentic. It helps us recognize key themes about who we are and how we create mental models of relating to the world that shapes our leadership.
If life was about survival and meeting expectations, then it is likely we will try to please everyone and keep silent, forsaking our opportunity for leadership growth.
Or sometimes, a difficult life experience can motivate us and shape our values in work. These are important to consider in our journey to become more authentic, and ultimately, more effective leaders.
As Bill Georges put it, “Your life narrative is like a permanent recording playing in your head. Over and over, you replay the events and personal interactions that are important to your life…Rather than seeing themselves as victims, though, authentic leaders used these formative experiences to give meaning to their lives. They reframed these events to rise above their challenges and to discover their passion to lead.”
Want to discover your authentic leadership? Here are some questions to reflect on:
What were the people and experiences you had in your life that had the greatest impact on you? How did they shape your values, and motivate you to lead?
We would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment below or drop us a line.
¹ Discovering Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew N. McLean, and Diana Mayer, Harvard Business Review.
This article is co-written by copywriter Jessica Lam Hill Young