Today, I want to address one of the most common concerns I hear from prospective clients: whether they can be a great leader while also “being themselves.” These aren’t the words they use, but this is what they worry about. Do they have to change “who they are” in order to build a great company? Maybe they worry about being convincing public speakers, or managing conflict between two direct reports, or knowing they tend to be slow decision-makers. Sometimes they mention having a short fuse and can’t avoid blowing up when they get disappointed. Given that most of my clients are quite ambitious, have high standards for themselves (and others), and are motivated by succeeding, these worries can become self-sabotaging.
Can you guess my answer?
First, if you’ve worked with me at all, you’ll know that I am a firm believer that anyone who wants to become a better leader can do so. And that the first place to start is with a deeper sense of who you are.
One of my favorite paths to self-knowledge is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (aka the MBTI®). Understanding your cognitive patterns (how you gather information and make decisions) helps you see and understand how you differ from others. But you’ll learn much more than this -- you’ll gain insights to your values, approaches to decision-making, where you get energized (and drained), and how you organize your work (time and tasks). Most important, you’ll begin to appreciate how these differences are beneficial to collaborative work, rather than the sources of friction you thought they were!
We all have habits and patterns of thinking and acting that hold us back. Over time, we can change these habits and replace them with more productive ways of thinking (think of this as “mental fitness”). I’ve been introducing this more formally with my executive clients, and many are finding it helpful to take the free Saboteur Assessment, offered at no cost by PositiveIntelligence.com. These easy-to-relate-to descriptions of common self-sabotaging patterns can help you take the first steps toward rewiring how you react to difficult emotions. Ultimately, knowing these saboteurs helps you disempower them, and bring your “sage mind” forward more often. It’s a terrific practice for building self-management!
Of course, knowing yourself is only the beginning. The next thing you must do is accept that you choose your behaviors. And you can change them when you want to. This isn’t always intuitive or easy, and it’s often a main focus of executive coaching -- “how can I behave differently when (I believe) it doesn’t come naturally to me?” As you build your self-awareness AND experiment with some new behavior choices, you will see different reactions from others. It’s super gratifying, once you get the hang of it. Does this mean you can’t “be yourself?” Not at all. Your behavior isn’t you. You choose the behaviors that will yield the results you’re looking for.
The next thing you must realize is that your role is not you. Every executive role can be thought of as if it were a role in a play. Let’s take the CEO role. There are certain things that the CEO must do. You need to first fully understand this role from multiple perspectives. What do your team members need from you? The employees in your company? Your customers, suppliers, board members, and all the other stakeholders? Once you’ve thought through the ‘character’ you play, imagine yourself putting on an invisible cloak. (Not an invisibility cloak, for all you Harry Potter fans!) This cloak allows you to be yourself on the inside, 100% of the time, and to choose your external actions and words intentionally, to meet the needs of this role. So when people react to “you,” you can remind yourself that they might be reacting to your role, the character you’re playing in their life.
And lastly, take care of you. Every executive role requires some degree of flexing outside your comfort zone -- acting in ways that may occasionally feel like you aren’t being true to yourself. This is tiring, and will wear you down if you don’t recharge your batteries regularly. My guidance is to always be clear on your values and principles, and stay unwaveringly true to these; this keeps you centered in your Self.
Make absolutely sure that you prioritize attending to your health and wellbeing, physical, emotional and spiritual (or however you define your parts). Build rest and recovery into every day, to help you manage the stresses and challenges of your leadership role. That’s how you can play at the top of your own game.
So, here’s my final answer: no, you don’t have to change yourself to be a great leader. But you may find it helpful to better understand and manage your emotions and thoughts, so you can intentionally choose behaviors that will help you reach your goals. And shine like the star that you are inside.