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As I See It: Authentic Leadership

Jim MillerBy Jim Miller

On several occasions I have spoken to mid-career professionals at the American Institute of Architects Minnesota Leadership Forum about what makes leaders effective. Of course, if I truly knew the answer to that question, I would now be sunning on my yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Role models can be important, and there are innumerable books and training sessions on how to be an effective leader, but I have always felt there was something a bit artificial in trying to apply the latest and best idea to my own leadership style just because it has worked for someone else. In preparing for my latest presentation to the architects, I came across a Harvard Business Review article that gave credence to my uneasiness. The article, titled “The Trouble with Leadership Theories,” was written by Doug Sundheim.

According to Sundheim, “… the trouble with leadership theories is they’re easy to hide behind (often inaccurately). They become proxies for actual leadership. When something important is on the line, people don’t follow five-tiered triangles, four-box matrices, or three concentric circles. They follow real people.” Exactly, I thought.

He says he tells clients to write down their own thoughts about what makes an effective leader. He encourages them not to overthink the task, but to write what they truly believe on no more than one page.leadership

He also discusses how powerful this exercise can be because it makes leadership authentic. It is not someone else’s prescription, it’s unique to the person who wrote it—it’s what he or she really believes. Simply stated, you can learn from others, but you cannot be them.

I was intrigued enough by his thesis that I gave it a try in preparing for my presentation to the architects. Here is what I shared with them:

Integrity is the most important consideration. People must know that you are honest in dealing with them—always. They must know your values and see that you live by them day in and day out.

A person’s ethics must be unimpeachable. As a leader, you are the personification of the organization. How you are perceived is how the organization will be perceived. Ethical conduct is not a sometimes thing.

Treat people with compassion and respect. Organizations can and will recover from most mistakes. In those instances, use them as learning opportunities, not as a vehicle for blame. Recognize and thank everyone for their contributions, regardless of how small or what position they hold.

Trust your employees. Give them the tools they need and get out of their way. Leading is guiding, not doing. If you don’t trust them to act independently, address the reason or make the necessary change.

Hold everyone accountable. Giving employees latitude to perform doesn’t mean anarchy. The key is to help them clearly identify their most important goals, and make sure they have the tools to achieve them. Then honestly and collaboratively measure success while noting gaps and giving advice on how to close them.

Leadership is not management. Leadership is about the future, shaping and reinforcing culture, using an adaptive problem-solving approach, and setting the direction while helping others decide how to get there.

Leadership is, as they say, more art than science. We may not be able to simply apply a formula to improve as leaders, but we can always do better. Certainly, attributes such as intelligence, maturity, hard work, knowledge, experience, and people skills all matter in effective leadership, but it ultimately boils down to acting authentically—being consistent with what you value. You can learn from others, and your style can certainly evolve, but effective leaders are the ones who follow Polonius’ maxim in Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”

To be clear, this personal statement is much more aspirational than a reflection of how I actually perform as a leader. And, it’s not a prescription for you. Yet, as Sundheim suggests, I found something very worthwhile in being able to see my beliefs on paper. As uncomfortable as it may be, I plan to review it from time to time to assess how I am doing. I have no doubt I will be better for it.

Whether you are elected or appointed, try this exercise—you might be surprised by what you learn about your own leadership style.

Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmiller@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the July-August 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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