In the realm of leadership, the journey to becoming a great leader often hinges on one fundamental principle – helping others discover and embrace their true selves. As leaders, our role is not to replicate ourselves in those we lead, but rather to guide them towards understanding who they are. This journey towards identity goes beyond creating copies of good leaders, and delves more into the realm of nurturing individuality.
I’ve gotten this wrong more times than I’ve gotten this right.
My own leadership journey has been a process of discovering who I am, and even more so discovering who I’m not. Most of that came from failed attempts of trying to mirror leaders I respected. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s vital that we learn from the leaders we love. Picking up important ideas from them, gaining insight from their wisdom and allowing them to sand down our rough edges along the way. But, there’s a distinct difference between learning from someone else and becoming someone else. Trying to be someone you’re not is exhausting.
My parents loved to host dinner guests. When I was little my job was to greet them at the door. The 7-year-old doorman was always a crowd pleaser. After welcoming them in, I would study the clothes the guests were wearing and look to see if I had something similar in my closet.
Nearly every time we had someone over, I would sneak to my room and change my clothes to match the guest as best I could. Be it cowboy boots, a vest or a jacket. I would return hoping they didn’t notice the costume change and wait for the inevitable “well, how cute is that … you two look just alike.”
My parents still tell this story. In some ways I think we’re all similar to that 7-year-old boy. I know I am. The question for all of us then becomes, what costume have you put on because you don’t believe being you is enough?
I’m not your typical chief executive. I don’t like math. I find economics to be wildly boring and any form of data analysis is usually beyond my brain capacity.
It’s taken me 41 years to say that out loud. When I took my current job, a friend from grad school shot me an email upon seeing the announcement. It read, “Congrats on the CEO gig. Find a good therapist.” And so I did.
But the work that ensued was mostly about breaking down who I thought I was supposed to be, my false self, if you will. Sometimes discovering who we are as a leader starts with acknowledging who we’re not. With a lot of counseling and some hard personal work I discovered I’m a storyteller, a cheerleader, a community builder and an untangler of knots. I love helping people untangle difficult situations. I’m at my best when I’m celebrating others. And I get a lot of life from bringing different people together around a common goal that creates belonging. I would have missed all of that though if I’d spent my life pretending to be an economist.
This is our job as managers, directors, bosses and employers. To help people undo the belief that who they are isn’t going to cut it. It starts by paying attention. Most of the best managers I’ve worked under spent more time learning me than they did trying to get me to learn them. Being a good leader is not reproducing yourself in another person. Being a good leader is helping that person become the best version of themselves.
Justin Bailey is the CEO of Realty Executives Associates and can be reached at Justin@RealtyExecutives.com