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About ten years ago, I gave a bit of unsolicited advice to a college student with dreams of achieving some pretty big goals by the ripe old age of 30. I took him seriously enough to suggest a plan of action and, a bit reluctantly, he acted on it. Recently, I received a gracious thank-you note from that same man, who is now realizing his lofty dreams. I responded with a second piece of advice that will hopefully be easier for him to follow: “Ask yourself, what kind of leader do I want to be? What’s my brand as a leader? Whatever that is, be authentic.”
When I was a young man, I really wanted people to take me seriously. I wanted to project a no-nonsense image. So, I ordered some very serious letterhead on bond paper with embossed lettering and a serif font and the whole deal. I used emphatic exclamation points in my letters. Of course, the image I was trying to project wasn’t who I really was — a regular laid-back guy who preferred casual clothes, enjoyed a good time, and had a solid midwestern work ethic. Any leadership skills I possessed had much more to do with an innate sense of empathy than any Machiavellian business school tactics. I wish someone had given me the advice back then that I recently shared with my 30-year-old friend and rising business leader — just be yourself. People respect authenticity.
Here’s something else I shared with him. Humility goes hand-in-hand with authenticity, and the flip-side of humility is vulnerability. Leaders don’t pretend to be something they’re not. They understand that they don’t have all the answers, aren’t always the smartest one in the room, and that they need help from others. They welcome input. They acknowledge their own mistakes and shortcomings. They keep trying to be better people and more effective leaders.
Today, my personal “note paper” consists of colorful, oversized postcards with big, friendly type. (It’s not ComicSans, but it’s pretty casual.) It’s my hope that when I meet people for the first time, the “real me” matches whatever correspondence or social media we’ve used to connect. Every day, I try to put my energy into being a good leader, not just looking like one. And while I admire and even emulate many wonderful people, I try to stay true to that guy in the mirror — flawed, perhaps, but authentic. That’s the only kind of branding a leader needs.
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