The ‘born ready’ series: authenticity

I was full of energy; I was careless; content; excited, and enthusiastic, and then I was born. From this moment I began to be shaped and moulded in to what other people wanted me to be.

This might sound dramatic, but take a minute to think about it. As a child, were you ever so angry or upset that all you wanted to do was scream and shout? Did you then learn that this it wasn’t appropriate? Were you made to sit still in restaurants when every atom of your being wanted to run around and play? As we grow older, we start to behave as other people want us to, we listen more to the messages coming from the outside than we do to what our bodies are telling us on the inside.

When I first entered the workplace, little had changed in this regard. I was still listening to what the outside world was expecting of me. I put on the suit and tie, wore smart shoes, gradually (though unintentionally) diluted my regional accent, and generally behaved as I thought an office-based 9-5 working man should behave. It didn’t matter that the shoes were uncomfortable and that I couldn’t afford the suits on a junior officer’s wage, I did what I thought the outside world was telling me to do and it paid off. I was rewarded for my efforts, and before I knew it I had landed a management role and now the outside world had something different to say. “You’re a manager now; time for a nicer suit, maybe don’t go to the pub for Friday drinks – none of the other managers do etc. I continued listening to this voice and behaving in ways that I felt I was expected to. I wasn’t curious as to why I needed a different suit or why I needed a team to be in the office and at their desks, and I didn’t have the courage to challenge the norm.

I wasn’t ready to share my tales of podium dancing at the ‘Le Grand Fromage’

I began to feel like Clark Kent, at work I donned the suit and played the role of friendly and productive colleague, but I had a secret. Outside of work I laughed and I played. O.K. I didn’t wear a cape and fight the forces of evil, but I was definitely somebody different to the person I was in the office. In my early career the effects of this were magnified as I was hiding my identity as a gay man from my colleagues. On a Monday morning when colleagues were discussing their weekend I’d carefully refer to my ‘partner’ and make a point of knowing the ‘straight bars’ and clubs that I might have frequented. I wasn’t ready to share my tales of podium dancing at the ‘Le Grand Fromage’ night in the local gay club. But should I have? I’m not suggesting for a moment that people who identify as LGBTQ+ should come out at work if they’re not ready to. What I am suggesting is that we’d all benefit, as would our organisations if we brought even a bit more of our true selves in to our places of work. In my experience it’s tiring hiding. Hiding wastes energy that could be far better spent advancing our cause, and it impacts on our relationships with colleagues. Trust is instinctual, not hierarchical, and people have a sense if we’re holding something back. If people are unable to trust us, then how can they to trust us to lead them? When you head in to the office tomorrow, try taking a little bit of yourself in with you – the same you that enjoys life outside of work, and notice if your day is any different.

‘Born ready?’: courage

In the last ‘Born Ready’ blog, I explored the quality of curiosity and how we could benefit from learning to value this quality as we face increased leadership challenges in our sector. This week I’d like to think about another child-like quality; courage.

When I was nine years old, my brother and I had been to the tip and salvaged four large pram wheels. I was so excited! After what felt like months of searching we had finally found the only missing elements to our home-made Go Kart. We fixed the axles to the old wooden door, secured an old blue rope/steering device to the front axle and headed for ‘The Hill’. The Hill was notorious, it’s where anybody who was anybody went when it snowed. They took on The Hill with bin lids, dinner trays, rubber rings, and the occasional sledge. But this was the height of the summer holidays, we were going to set a new standard of bravery tackling The Hill on a homemade Go Kart! I couldn’t wait until we were back at school – we would be heroes! I sat at the top of the hill, gripping the steering rope so tight it was sore. Wearing nothing more than my shell suit to protect me, I gave the nod to my brother to push me over the precipice. My heart was racing so fast, like it knew something that I didn’t…

I’m told that I made it to the bottom. I don’t remember it as well my brother. Last I recall he was shouting at me to use the soles of my plimsolls as brakes. Ah yes, brakes! Perhaps the pram wheels weren’t the only thing missing…

I have learned to be cautious, to assess risk and make informed decisions based on the information that’s available to me. But have I become too cautious?

This might not be the most inspiring story to demonstrate my point, but my point remains. All of these years later I wouldn’t dream of returning to The Hill with a homemade Go Kart. I have learned to be cautious, to assess risk and make informed decisions based on the information that’s available to me. But have I become too cautious? Does this same risk assessment prevent me from being brave, from speaking my truth in situations where I may be a lone voice, and from making unpopular decisions even though I know with confidence that they’re the right decision for the organisation?

In trying to find an example of where I have demonstrated courage recently, I asked some of my colleagues for examples of where I have led with courage. This feedback revealed the big differences that I have effected as a result of being willing to take appropriate risks, to challenge the status quo, and to make ‘tough decisions’. The feedback also revealed that courage manifests in small moments, like in being more open and vulnerable with my colleagues.

As our sector faces increasing challenges, both in number and complexity, it’s vital that we lead with the courage of our childhood, and true to our authentic selves. In the next blog I’ll explore the quality of ‘authenticity’ and how being true to our real self can enable us to be more courageous.