What It Really Means To Be An Authentic Leader

Photo courtesy of Dr. Karissa Thacker

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the LEADx Show. I am Kevin Kruse, helping you to stand out and to get ahead both at work and at home. You're a leader at work and a leader in your own family. Today on the show we're going to be talking about the power of authenticity, and what it means in this real world of crazy technology and business demands always pulling at us, but first we need ratings on iTunes or wherever you listen to this podcast. Just click on some stars, leave a one sentence review, and know that you will have helped us to find new listeners, you will have helped us to build the LEADx family.

And the quote of the day. “If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken.” That comes from Brené Brown. Brené Brown's writings, her books are some of the only books that have made a big impact in my life in the last 10 years. Many other books have, but I just found them earlier in life.

Our guest today is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions, a management training, and coaching firm. She specializes in executive coaching and advisory services that balance on the job performance with the need for sustained personal fulfillment. We got to be in it for the long haul. She's often quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and many, many other major outlets. Her new book is The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self. Our guest is Dr. Karissa Thacker. Karissa, welcome to the show.

Dr. Karissa Thacker: Thanks, Kevin.

Kruse: Now, I have a tradition on the LEADx Show where I ask all our guests the same first question because I love failure stories. I think failures are often stepping stones to something great even if we don't feel it at the time, so tell me a story of one of your best failures and what did you learn from it.

Dr. Thacker: When I finished graduate school, I was hell-bent on living in San Francisco. My partner and I tried everything. We desperately wanted to move to the Bay Area. It didn't happen when I finished graduate school, and then a few years down the road I even applied for a job that I didn't really want just because it was in the Bay Area, but we kept trying. But the opportunity that did emerge was to live in Manhattan, and I had never been to Manhattan at the time and we moved to New York on my first day in New York. That sounds like a crazy story, but what happened is that I fell in love with New York. I call New York the second great love of my life, and what do you learn from this story? Well, I think that sometimes we get a vision of something very specific in our heads, but if we're open to life and open to experience, something even more extraordinary could happen.

Kruse: That's a great reminder because whether it's falling in love with a city, what we think we want to be when we grow up, or whatever it is, we don't know what we don't know, and so to be open-minded to new experiences and all the rest, you never know where it can lead.

Dr. Thacker: Absolutely. We call that in psychology openness to experience, and it is one of the Big Five personality factors that is connected to success and happiness and meaning.

Kruse: You know, I had no idea we were going to stumble on the Big Five personality, but it's something I've been reading up on as of late. I think I came late in my professional career to really valuing personality for both self-awareness and then also awareness of others and different styles. While I have found most companies seem to latch on to some of the lighter weight personality things, MBTI or DISC, maybe they're simpler so people can remember them better, I more recently discovered that oh, if you really want to be serious about this, you're going to use a Big Five model or a variation on that, and of course openness is one of those top five facets that you've just mentioned.

Dr. Thacker: Yeah. We love our four quadrant models in corporate and in a business setting because what's nice about that is I think people can take something useful away that's quick, but the reality is that our personalities are not as simple as four quadrants and they're changing, they're evolving based on experience all of the time, so the Big Five model is the foundation that we have in psychology. If you want to go deeper, I'm with you, Kev, and use a model that's based on the Big Five.

Kruse: You talked about, from your failure story, openness, openness to experience as one of those. What about the sort of debate about how much can we change our personality or grow that? Because this growth mindset seems to be a hot topic these days with the work of Carol Dweck and others of saying, “Oh, you need a growth mindset and here's how you can develop it.” It is traditional wisdom that your personality is pretty fixed. There's not a lot you can do to change it.

Dr. Thacker: I think what happens to disrupt that line of thinking is life. When we go through a divorce, we get a big promotion and we adapt, our personalities often can shift. There is a range, though, and I think a growth mindset is a tremendous tool in figuring out just how far our range is, and most of us do not realize how much range we have, but the only way we can know how much range we have in terms of growth is to try it out. I work a lot on my tennis game and I've been trying to improve by forehand, and I'm starting to think, “Oh, this is only going to be so good, but I've got the old trusty backhand,” so there's something to understanding that there's a range of what you can do, but at the same time I think we're selling ourselves short if we kind of go to the “I am what I model. This is how it is.”

Kruse: Right, right. Yeah. That's great. That's great. Another question I always ask my guests, the LEADx Leadership Show, we've got a lot of younger managers, less experienced managers, and so before diving into your book specifically, I'm just curious, what leadership advice would you give to a first-time manager. She's all gung-ho, wants to emerge as a strong leader. What would you tell her?

Dr. Thacker: Pay very close attention to the people in your company who are viewed as stars, key performers, high performers, and whether or not you like them is irrelevant because what happens when you start studying people who perform well in the company, you will learn automatically. We are social learners by nature as human beings, and the more young managers can build a relationship with the stars in the company, the better off they'll be for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally from a learning perspective.

Kruse: Great. Please go ahead.

Dr. Thacker: I was going to say another thing that I think is very relevant to the 21st-century workplace is don't get too hung up on getting promoted. It's enticing and we all want to be promoted fast, but if we really look at how the workplace is evolving, skill development is more important than a linear progression. I always encourage young people, if they have an opportunity that comes their way, to do something that they never saw themselves doing. For example, a marketer trying operations or an operations guy who has a shot at a sales job. Go for it, because the broader your range of understanding about different functions, the better off you're going to be in the long run, and I think that builds the muscle of learning and growing, which is actually the only way we're going to all thrive in the 21st-century workplace.

Kruse: I love that. Yeah, because, in fact, this is a very real example. I have an open job at LEADx. It's a job type that didn't even exist two years ago, so if I think about my teen children several years ago thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, I mean, there are things they can be that just didn't exist. There was no way for them to know it, but by sampling and getting broad exposure, it seems like good preparation, then, to be ready no matter what comes at us in this crazy, fast-paced world we're in.

Dr. Thacker: Absolutely.

Kruse: Karissa, your new book is The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self. Now, I think the title is sort of self-explanatory, but in your own words what's the big idea of the book?

Dr. Thacker: The big idea of the book, we tend to think of authenticity as being true to yourself; in the book, I make the case that in authentic leadership, in particular, we need to be true to our best self, our ideal self. The ideal self is a concept in psychology that has a deep and rich history. It is actually an aspect of personality that is conscious and unconscious. What it really means is that all of us have a sense of what it means to be good. All of us have a sense of who we are at our best, but it's kind of semi-conscious sometimes. We kind of know when we hit it. We're kind of wandering around in the dark.

But what I would like people to do after they read The Art of Authenticity is get crystal clear about who that ideal self is, and it's not fixed. You need to change it and update it and adapt it, but when you become crystal clear about that, that does become a force for shaping your behavior. It's kind of like Star Wars. “May the force be with you.” And that ideal self is a force in our personality if we can become skillful at using it.

Kruse: Again, for those who haven't read the book yet and for some of our listeners who aren't as familiar with the idea of authentic leadership, why would we want to be authentic leaders? Why would we want to channel the force? How is it going to help us in the workplace?

Dr. Thacker: You can do nothing alone in the workplace today. Individual contributor jobs do exist, but for the most part, I think all of us are working in teams and performance demands are extreme. The force, the authentic leadership, is about pulling people together in terms of connection, and when we pull people together in terms of connection and they experience positive emotions like meaningful work, positive emotions like connecting with another person that is like-minded, the shared vision, we are able to accomplish extraordinary things.

You always know that you're in the presence of authentic leadership when something extraordinary is happening, and it doesn't mean that the quarter lays are great every quarter, but what it means is that you've got people focused on doing something extraordinary and they start to feel that they can do it, and it's not just about being connected to that leader. It's about being connected to the rest of the team and being connected to the people that you work within a different, a deeper way.

Kruse: When it comes to authenticity and being vulnerable as a leader, I think some of the counterargument that people will make or one of the counterarguments is, “Well, it's just appealing to this age of too much information, TMI. Let me just show up at work and push my problems and woes and fears or my negative emotions on to my team members.” But it's not about that, right? It's not the same as just dumping your emotions freely on your team members.

Dr. Thacker: Absolutely not. Transparency is a tricky, tricky issue, though, to your point, Kevin. One of the things that I think is relevant to what you're talking about is some of us tend to armor up and not disclose much at all and being more distant in the workplace. Some of us tend to open up. Some of us tend to open up too much. Some of us tend to armor up too much. Too much of either one does not promote the most effective relationships, so the third way is to wise up. What I mean by wise up is to choose based on the situation what makes the most sense. You know, you've got a team that's derailing and in crisis mode. The fact that you didn't sleep last night is not very relevant to the rest of the people, so authenticity and authentic leadership happens in a relationship, and all of us have to negotiate when we need to armor up and sort of be more distant and get things done, and when we can open up, but that whole negotiation, we need to wise up.

Kruse: I love that. I love that phrase, to wise up and to share what is relevant to the situation. I'm going to throw a scenario at you because I'd love to get your insights and advice on it. I, a big believer in authentic leadership and vulnerability, unfortunately early on in my own career, I mean, a had a lot of senior leaders tell me things like, “Kevin, there's a lot of acting in leadership. It's your job to keep everybody motivated and positive, so whatever you're feeling, whatever you're thinking, you've got to go out and put that mask on and project.” I had another person tell me that, “You can never tell your team members bad news, the bad quarters, because then they're going to all jump on the internet and start updating their resumes and looking for jobs, and so you can't have your talent walking out the door right when you need them most.”

I had these kinds of messages come through, and I'm curious, in a specific situation where let's say an organization, we are missing our numbers. I mean, it's not dire, but we're missing our numbers. We may have to do layoffs 90 days from now, six months from now if things don't turn around. How much transparency would you say that companies, leadership have when it comes to financials? Do you go ahead and tell the team members, “Listen, things aren't looking good and here's what's going to happen if they don't turn around,” or do you sort of moderate that message a little bit?

Dr. Thacker: A couple of things have changed in recent years that are relevant to your question, Kevin. One of them is that it's very difficult to keep anything secret anymore, so if your numbers are trending down and you're a leader, and your people hear about that from someone else, let's work that through for a minute and how that's going to play out, and it's not well. The other piece that I think is that workers coming into the workplace now 40 and under, and even some of us who are north of 40, are smarter and savvier about organizational dynamics. We've lived through the ups and downs of 2008. The generation that's coming of age now, many of them were kids when 9/11 happened.

Kruse: Sure.

Dr. Thacker: So some very real and hard things have happened both in the business world and in the larger geopolitical world, and we run the risk of tearing relationships apart by not being honest these days. The expectations have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years, so I always say to some of my more senior leaders who are used to operating in that more armored up fashion, “Dude, you got to go with the 21st century here, trust me.” What they find over time is that it becomes more comfortable, and guess what? There was a side of me that can now come to the party in my work, even though I'm 52 years old and have never led this way before. It feels good. It feels real.

Kruse: It's great.

Dr. Thacker: We can always grow and change regardless of how big our titles are.

Kruse: Yeah. I've always been pleasantly surprised when I've practiced open-book management that, as you say, people, they're not stupid. They can see signs when things are going well or not when things are busy or slow, and if you don't provide the information, whatever people dream up is generally worse than the reality is anyway.

Dr. Thacker: Absolutely. The grapevine. Absolutely. It's much worse, but I also think there's a possibility in that honesty for a deeper relationship that we lose when we are not forthcoming with things. There are definitely situations. Let's say an MNA. MNA activity is one. You can't always be open book about that, and god knows the rumor mill just goes into overdrive on that one.

Kruse: Right, right.

Dr. Thacker: But I think that whole negotiation of that relationship and when your people come to trust that as you can share, you do share, then it becomes something where they have a fundamental sense of who you are and where you're coming from that makes that whole thing easier. I talk in the book about what I call “proactive transparency,” and that sets you up for times when you can't share everything because you've been so open about who you are in terms of how you came to be who you are, who've been honest about your failures, for example, and people have a sense of who you are at a deeper level. That's proactive transparency.

Kruse: Love that and I love that phrase, share what you can share at the time, and you get that reputation for being transparent and honest. Then if it comes that time when you can't share something, people will be more understanding about that.

Dr. Thacker: Absolutely.

Kruse: I always challenge our LEADx listeners. I say, “Try to get just a little bit better every single day. You know, 1% better every single day.” Is there something from your book that you could challenge us with today if we wanted to begin to become more of an authentic leader, working more with our ideal self? What's something we might do today to think about or to take action on?

Dr. Thacker: There's a great tool that people don't know about called the VIA Character Strengths Inventory, and if you put it in Google, just viacharacterstrengths.org, you could take a questionnaire. What is great about this is it's a tool designed to measure the best, the possibilities in human behavior, and we've gotten into a bad habit of not discussing morals and values, and what's great about this tool is that it is a tool that we can use regardless of religion, regardless of culture, because the team that put this tool together validated this across culture and across time, and would you know what these virtues or values are that are culturally transcendent, you can actually go, “Gee, I would like to be wiser today. If I had more wisdom about me today in this stressful situation, what would I do?”

So that's the one thing that I think could add the most value for the listeners. It takes about 20 minutes and those 24 words or character strengths are powerful. Perspective, kindness, courage. How do we begin to think about those values or virtues more in our language and in our thinking? Then we begin to live them out more just by the intention of living them out.

Kruse: Love that. Again, that's the VIA Character Strengths. We could google that online to find that assessment, right?

Dr. Thacker: It will come right up, yeah.

Kruse: Excellent. Karissa, how can our listeners find out more about you and your new book?

Dr. Thacker: I am going to be doing a retreat up at Kripalu in the beautiful Berkshires of Western Massachusetts' Presidents Day weekend, February the 16th through the 19th where we will be diving in deep on a lot of the concepts we've talked about today. The other, there's www.karissathacker.com. Not very original, but there it is, the website. Then the book is, of course, available on good old Amazon.

Kruse: Excellent, excellent. We will put those links in the show notes and the articles that come out.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.