In an excerpt from their book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, co-authors Barry Posner and James Kouzes talk about the importance of leaders finding their authentic voice and articulating their leadership philosophy.
Who are you?
This is the first question your constituents want you to answer. Exemplary leadership does not come from the outside in. It comes from the inside out.
Just imagine this scene. Someone walks into the room right now and announces to you and your colleagues, “Hi, I’m your new leader.” At that very moment, right away, what do you want to know from this person? What are the questions that immediately pop into your mind?
We’ve asked this question of many different groups, and their responses are almost always the same. People tell us they want to ask that new leader:
- What are your values?
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What do you stand for and believe in?
- How do you make decisions?
- Why do you want to do this job?
- What qualifies you for this job?
- What do you believe (for example, about this field, this time in history, how people should be treated, about family, health, wealth and so on)?
Questions like these get to the heart of leadership. People always want to know some things about the person doing the leading before they become the people doing the following. They want to know what inspires you, what drives you, what informs your decisions, what gives you strength, what makes you who you are. They want to know about the person behind the role or position.
At the start of her personal-best leadership journey, Sumaya Shakir, IT Strategy Director for a passenger railroad service, found that she needed “to question myself about what I stood for, what was important to me, what approaches I was going to follow, what I was going to communicate and what my expectations were. I had to know and believe first within myself. There were so many things that came into my mind all at once, but I had to focus on the core values I wanted to represent.”
Find your authentic voice
Before you can become a credible leader – one who connects “what you say” with “what you do” – you first have to find your authentic voice, the most genuine expression of who you are.
If you don’t find your voice, you’ll end up with a vocabulary that belongs to someone else, mouthing words written by some speechwriter or mimicking the language of some other leader who is nothing like you at all. If the words you speak are not your words but someone else’s, you will not, in the long term, be able to be consistent in word and deed. You will not have the integrity to lead.
Consider how one constituent described his manager. It goes a long way toward explaining why this startup company never got off the ground:
“First, our manager never had an authentic voice, as he never had the courage to offer solutions or suggestions beyond what our three (never-agreeing) directors contributed to each decision. Often, it felt like he acted as a simple conduit for mixed messages from above, without his personal voice defining a clear road for us to travel on. This made it very difficult for the group to focus on a defined set of tasks connected to goals.
“Second, we had no specific organizational values to live by. Sure, we all knew the company’s mission, but he never went beyond the ordinary in defining values for our business. Seemingly simple values went undefined and, as a result, were exploited by some team members.”
If the words you speak are not your words but someone else’s, you will not, in the long term, be able to be consistent in word and deed. You will not have the integrity to lead.
As could have been predicted, this lack of clarity and consistency in values resulted in little internal cohesion and focus, and they failed to generate a favorable customer experience or positive business results.
In contrast, when Juliana Moreno-Ramirez was asked to be the new clinical research manager for a major university-based teaching hospital, her first step “was to look within myself and understand how I wanted to lead. More specifically, I needed to reflect on who I was and my values, finding my own voice and guiding principles, because only then could I confidently lead this program.”
It took a while, she said, to “understand my values, because truthfully as an individual contributor, I never took the time to dissect them. Knowing that my decisions and actions would affect others brought a sense of responsibility to understand the kind of leader I wanted to be.”
Moreno-Ramirez felt that this was “probably the most critical step you can take to be an effective leader, finding a voice that represents clearly who you are. If you just put up an act, your team will see right through you and deem you unfit to lead them.”
Articulate your leadership philosophy
To find your voice, you have to discover what you care about, what defines you and what makes you who you are.
You have to explore your inner self. You can only be authentic when you lead according to the principles that matter most to you. Otherwise, you’re just putting on an act. When you fail to express your leadership philosophy in word and deed, you weaken your own and your team’s engagement and effectiveness. Exemplary leaders know this.
When we ask leaders to indicate how clear they are about their leadership philosophy, those who consider themselves at the top of this scale also rate their leadership effectiveness more than 128 percent higher than those leaders who have indicated they are occasionally clear, at most, about their leadership philosophy.
Leading others begins with leading yourself and you can’t do that until you’re able to answer that fundamental question about who you are.
In addition, the leaders who are seen as almost always clear about their leadership philosophy are evaluated substantially more highly as effective leaders by their direct reports than those leaders who lack clarity. Indeed, few direct reports consider their leaders effective unless they have a clear philosophy of leadership.
To be most effective, you must learn to find the voice that represents who you are. Leading others begins with leading yourself and you can’t do that until you’re able to answer that fundamental question about who you are. When you have clarified your values and found your voice, you will also find the inner confidence necessary to take charge of your life.
Barry Posner holds the Michael J. Accolti, S.J., Chair at Santa Clara University and is Professor of Leadership with the Leavey School of Business. He is Chair of the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship and previously served as Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, as well as Executive Education, and as Dean of the Leavey School. He and James Kouzes – a fellow at the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University and formerly the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University – are co-authors of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations.