As a teacher, I was at my best when I could be my authentic self with my students. This did not mean that I had to relinquish my authority, become my students’ best friend or tell them all of my secrets. It meant that I was comfortable using humor in the classroom, sharing my interests with my students, and letting my students get to know me as an individual. It meant that sometimes I delivered lessons that were a little off the wall – e.g. playing a drum set and singing in order to help students grasp the concept of cadence in poetry. But that’s who I was, and I had fun doing it! My students could tell, and they appreciated my authenticity – it helped us to build trust together and it gave them license to be themselves in my classroom, too.
I’ve also been on the other side. In moments of stress and immense pressure, it is easy to lose sight of who you are and what you’re striving for, and often a leader’s actions can become misaligned with values. This is a drain on a leader’s own personal well-being and his/her ability to build trust with others. In the midst of a very challenging previous leadership role, I came to realize that I was leading in a way that departed from my authentic self. My moment of realization is very vivid – I was walking to my car, talking with my manager about some of the leadership challenges I was facing, when suddenly I said, “This isn’t who I really am.” It was a powerful moment of self-awareness for me and unlocked an understanding that allowed me to begin to recover, and ultimately thrive, as a leader. I had allowed the unrelenting stress of my situation to divert me from leading in a way that was authentic to my true self, and that knowledge allowed me to begin to change.
Ron Rivera, head coach of the Super Bowl-bound Carolina Panthers, exemplifies authenticity in his leadership. A recent article from Sporting News describes the culture that Rivera has built within the Panthers organization and highlights his consistent, authentic persona and approach as a key to the team’s success. In the article, Carolina safety Roman Harper explains that Rivera is “the same guy every day and doesn’t change who he is.” Running back Jonathan Stewart says, “He’s really taught and showed us what really matters, the values he holds…He’s a man of integrity.” Rivera recently moved from an executive suite to a new office on the ground floor of the Panthers’ stadium so that he can be closer to his players, get a better feel for the culture and get to know them better. As a result, players see him more frequently and have come to know who Rivera is as a person and what he values. This type of leadership has helped the Panthers improve from a 6-10 record in Rivera’s first year in 2011 to an 18-1 record and a Super Bowl berth in 2016.
Beyond Rivera’s own display of authenticity, he has exemplified another key aspect of leadership – creating an inclusive culture that allows all members of the team to be their authentic selves. The Panthers have built an identity this year that is confident, fun and upbeat. Even the most casual of fans are now familiar with the “dab,” and team pictures have become a routine at the end of games. But the inclusive culture goes beyond celebrations – it has allowed players to find success while being their true selves and embracing each other. A recent Huffington Post article gives Rivera credit for empowering his players – especially his black players – to embrace their identities and to be themselves. He consistently tells his players, “Keep your personality.” This empowerment is apparent in the renewed leadership and improved performance of players like Cam Newton, who is the front-runner for the league’s MVP award.
Authenticity is good for you – and it’s good for the people around you, too. As a leader, strive to be yourself and empower your people to be themselves, too – it’s a winning formula.