Authentic, Reflective, Mindful Leadership Development

by Cindy Byrd
image potential

“ARM” yourself for a journey of self-discovery…

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” goes the familiar line from the 1939 movie classic, The Wizard of Oz. But the dialogue that occurs when the Wizard is confronted after Toto’s successful reveal may not be as familiar, particularly this exchange:

Dorothy:   Who are you?
Wizard:     I am the great and powerful (pause) Wizard of Oz. (voice trailing off…)
Dorothy: You are?! I don’t believe you!
Wizard: I’m afraid it’s true. There’s no other wizard but me.
Dorothy: Oh, you’re a very bad man!
Wizard: Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.

Just a very bad wizard? Obviously, the Wizard was not only confused about his identity, he was delusional. He believed he was authentic because of his basic goodness. Unfortunately, he chose to be stuck in a role as “The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz,” disconnected from reality and unable to overcome his own confusion regarding what he stood for, what he believed and ultimately, who he really was. Deceit and manipulation were barriers to knowing “the very good man” he proclaimed to be.

His authentic “good” self emerges, however, when he compassionately fulfills their requests: a brain for the Scarecrow, courage for the Cowardly Lion, a heart for the Tin Man. In his attempt to transport Dorothy back home, we see another glimpse into the real man, when he reassures her by saying, “I’m an old Kansas man myself, born and bred!” Their anger toward the Wizard quickly turns into gratitude and admiration. Only in the movies could this occur in a matter of minutes after such a devastating betrayal of trust! In reality, it takes much longer to rebuild trust to the point where people find someone believable and inspiring enough to want to follow them.

When leaders act inconsistently or are unclear about their vision, it not only diminishes trust, it causes feelings of uncertainty. David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, cites uncertainty as one of the triggers that causes the brain to perceive danger. In turn, this sense of uncertainty automates the brain’s natural defense mechanism to disengage — just the opposite of what organizations need: engaged employees who feel confident and connected.

The concern is that many leaders are in denial about their true selves or have deluded themselves into thinking they are “good” because of certain results. While the Wizard may have challenged Dorothy and friends to a higher level of performance by using power and control, it was his genuine self who ultimately inspired them to see their own capabilities and truly transform their circumstances.

What might have been different if the “leader” of Oz had stopped and evaluated his life instead of playing a role that he was ultimately not so proud of? What if he had instead embraced leadership not as a role, but as a way of being? Perhaps he needed his own path to self-discovery — his own yellow brick road.

There is a new path by which individuals can “ARM” themselves for their own journey of self-discovery. This approach to leadership development places emphasis on authenticity, reflection and mindfulness, while placing secondary focus on more traditional leadership skills. This powerful trifecta utilizes personal branding concepts, assessments and reflective journaling to help individuals:

  • Identify their values, passions, vision and mission
  • Discover blind spots and long-held mindsets that may be inhibiting success
  • Develop the habit of introspection
  • Examine the quality of their thinking
  • Practice real-time observation and modification of behaviors and actions.

The journey begins with authenticity. One cannot be a leader of integrity without knowing who you really are in the first place. The tool for developing authenticity is the personal branding process, which begins with an examination of your life story. Our experiences and the role models we’ve encountered along the way shape and influence us, and we can discover how our own personal leadership has developed and evolved. Through this process, we are able to identify our values and beliefs — those things that influence our thoughts and actions — which helps us understand what drives us: our passions, the things that energize us and help us feel more fulfilled.

Passion leads to purpose by helping us develop a vision that transcends our personal selves. This vision is for the greater community, perhaps even the world. Identifying this greater vision is the prerequisite to discovering our purpose as we ask, “What’s my role in making that vision a reality?” Operating with a greater sense of purpose and conviction improves the ability to set targeted goals and pursue more meaningful action. If we are truly in touch with our authentic selves, there should be no need to misuse power or employ deceitful or manipulative tactics, as the Wizard did.

So how do we get in touch with and fully understand our real selves? While traditional methods like case studies and lectures are adequate for teaching the how and why of leadership, reflective thinking leads to learning about the who and how you want to live your life. It isn’t enough to study the characteristics of other leaders or to look to certain individuals as role models. To actively engage in the how and why, individuals need to first come to terms with who they are. The second leg of the journey is reflection.

Knowing the way you want to live your life requires reflection on ideas and feelings that lead to patterns of behavior. Reflecting on past experiences and observing ourselves in the present can help us see the relationships between the choices we make and our life circumstances. It’s also very important to seek feedback from others and reflect on their perceptions of us. Having a clear self-awareness helps make the connection between what we believe and what we do or say. This is the essence of being a person of integrity.

Reflective thinking requires several elements:

  • Courage. As the Cowardly Lion discovered, it’s not always easy to look in the mirror or ask for feedback — especially if you find you’ve been deluding yourself because you weren’t aware of blind spots, such as the gaps between how you think you’re perceived by others and how you’re actually perceived.
  • Introspection. As the Tin Man learned, it’s important to search your heart, which requires a willingness to be truly honest with yourself. It also means being open to feedback, rather than reacting in a negative or defensive way. It’s easy to operate in a state of denial, fooling ourselves into thinking all is well.
        Consider this statement from a participant in a leadership program based on the ARM approach: “I have never been a leader who looks over a person’s shoulder to make sure they were doing their work. I believe most people want to do a good job and be successful. I do my best within reason to give them the latitude they need.”
        This individual began the program in denial of his tendency to do just the opposite of what he claimed. He interjected his opinions, didn’t listen to his staff, and wasn’t really willing to “give them latitude” because he made all the decisions. He saw no reason to change and was satisfied with “good enough” outcomes. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really being honest with himself.
  • Critical thinking. As the Scarecrow realized, it’s vital to consider the quality of one’s thinking and be aware of long-held mindsets and beliefs that may be inhibiting success. Often, the true problem isn’t that we have such mindsets, it’s that we don’t recognize we have them in the first place. This is one of the most common ways we delude ourselves into believing that we aren’t the ones with issues — it’s everyone else — and there’s nothing we can do to change matters. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is devoid of personal accountability. We end up wishing that someone would do something or that circumstances would change, when we should be asking what we can do to help or how we can lead the change effort — starting with our own mindsets.
  • Learning. Dorothy helps us discover one of the most important aspects of reflective thinking. After the failed attempt to take her back to Kansas in a hot-air balloon, she pleads with Glinda for help. When she tells Dorothy that she’s always had the power to go back home, the Scarecrow emphatically asks, “Why didn’t you tell her?!” Glinda says that Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her — she had to learn it for herself. When asked what she learned, Dorothy replies, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it in the first place.” Again, only in the movies can learning be so profound in such a short amount of time!

The reality is that it takes time and practice through the regular habit of reflective thinking. Simply asking the following four questions can increase the likelihood of achieving the level of learning that leads to behavior change: What went well? What didn’t go well (or could be improved)? What would I do differently next time? What did I learn from this experience?

The true beauty of reflective thinking is that it leads to both enlightened thinking and enlightened action. Here’s a prologue to the story about the program participant who was previously in denial, after he completed several reflective thinking assignments that required empowering his staff. Like Dorothy, he had to learn it for himself: “I forced myself to let the team leader make the decision and put the team together. I listened to her suggestions. She appreciated the trust I put in her, and did a good job. I see her getting more and more confident every day. This exercise opened my eyes to giving more responsibilities to the entire staff, not just the team leader, and to not be a micro-manager. I guess I thought more highly of my own abilities than that of employees. This has opened my eyes to a very different style of management... [And] it really works.”

While reflective thinking increases self-awareness, it’s not enough. There are many people who claim to be self-aware. They’ve taken every assessment and poured over self-help books, yet they wonder why things don’t seem to change. A self-aware person may know they have a tendency to interrupt, but still not make a conscious choice to modify this behavior when it occurs.

What this person needs is the third part of the journey to self-discovery: mindfulness, which means tuning into the moment, paying attention and capturing the opportunity to apply what has been learned through reflection. If this person practiced mindfulness, he or she would recognize, in the moment, when this tendency occurs and make a conscious choice to actively listen and refrain from interrupting. With increased work and information loads, however, our focus has become quite fragmented, and we often operate on automatic pilot, making it challenging to be fully present and perceptive to what’s going on around us.

Here’s another example of the vital connection between self-awareness and mindfulness from a program participant who recognized that certain nonverbal behaviors may be misinterpreted by her employees and others. It also illustrates how mindfulness increases focus and perceptiveness: “I have started watching my body language and facial expressions. I was recently told that I have become much more approachable, as my arms aren’t crossed in front of my body and my face doesn’t ‘wrinkle up’ (as stated by my eight-year-old daughter!)”

Alan Sloan of the Authentic Leadership in Action Institute teaches that mindfulness is about slowing down and recognizing when our own biases may be clouding judgment. Here’s an example from another program participant: “I assumed an employee was deliberately breaking the rules, being careless and not taking time to do the job properly. The problem, however, was in my communication of expectations, not in her attitude or work ethic. Once I explained exactly what I wanted, she completed the job with no difficulty.”

Another participant described the challenges sometimes associated with being mindful: “It was a little more difficult to work on my non-verbal skills, just because they usually come out under stress or when bad news is given to me. Therefore, I do not always have the opportunity to improve upon them.”

According to Sloan, mindfulness teaches us to ride the energy of every situation, whether emotional, psychological or physical. Practicing mindfulness means we don’t have to be at the mercy of our thoughts or emotions. Our actions arise from reflection, not from reaction; thus, our decisions are more informed. Just as Dorothy learned, the mind can support us, rather than be an obstacle.

The Journey’s Rewards
Authenticity, reflection and mindfulness are interrelated, and these elements in the journey to self-discovery support each other in powerful ways that result in several positive outcomes:

  • A greater sense of purpose and fulfillment that inspires others to action. Knowing who you are and what you stand for puts others at ease, while increasing self-confidence. The ability to effectively express your vision and purpose provides a greater level of clarity that people find inspirational and motivating. It can even increase self-motivation, as described by this program participant: “It is very motivating to see others embrace your vision and be willing to support it in any way they can.”
  • Increased credibility and trustworthiness. Operating in an authentic manner makes us more believable — we’re real people, not titles or positions. People want to follow leaders who are grounded and act with integrity. As Bob Pew, former CEO of Steelcase, said, “If you want to lead others, you’ve got to have their trust, and you can’t have their trust without integrity.” Increased trust levels create more positive experiences for followers, and, in turn, they become more confident and accountable.
  • Creative insights that result in pursuing alternatives not previously considered. ARM leaders are not stuck reacting to people or circumstances. They examine their own roles in situations, leading to less frustration with decisions made by others. This openness increases the ability to see opportunities, rather than placing blame. Stopping and evaluating quality of thinking leads to broader perspectives and fresh approaches to old problems.
  • Better relationships, not only at work, but in all parts of life. Reflective thinking not only results in greater self-awareness, it also increases our understanding of others and aids in the development of trust and connectedness to others. By exploring beliefs, strengths, challenges, mindsets and self-defeating behaviors, individuals become more aware of how they can effectively contribute to shared goals, group processes, employee engagement and development, and even social change.
        As the late Stephen Covey stated, “Self-awareness enables us to stand apart and examine even the way we ‘see’ ourselves — our self-paradigm… It affects not only our attitudes and behaviors, but also how we see other people.” This is illustrated in what the participant originally in denial had to say at the end of the program: “A very important factor that I have learned is that I am just a team member like everyone else, and that is what will make us successful.”
  • A positive nature that might even be akin to spiritual-centeredness or inner peace. James P. Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, says he has met just about every CEO who runs a large company, and the ones he’s most impressed with do not seem packaged. “They have this sense of peace that says, ‘I understand who I am.’”

Being authentic, reflective and mindful not only leads to a deeper sense of self, but also to an inner confidence and peacefulness that diminishes some of the chaos associated with life and work. Living with a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment can naturally result in a more positive attitude and demeanor. And people with a positive nature are much more pleasant to be around — just ask Dorothy about the difference between Glinda and the Wicked Witch!

The Journey Continues
Dorothy dreamed of going “over the rainbow,” and perhaps she did. Perhaps you dream of becoming an effective leader, and that’s your “rainbow.” But as another program participant put it: “I knew the type of leader I wanted to be, but had no clue about the type of leader I currently was, which meant I would never have been able to get to that next level.”

So it’s not always enough to have dreams of being a certain type of leader — it requires a continuous journey of self-discovery. As Randy Pausch said in his book, The Last Lecture, “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.” iBi

Cindy Byrd is owner and CEO of image potential and the soon-to-be launched Labyrinth Leadership. She is also a professor of business administration at Robert Morris University.

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