Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Leading Authentically: How Do I Tell the Emperors?

By Alfred Walter Bayes, Dalziel Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
(Photo: By Alfred Walter Bayes, Dalziel Brothers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Timeless leadership is always about character, and it is always about authenticity. ~ Warren Bennis
I take pride in being a squeaky wheel, a BS caller, a canary in the coal mine. I’ll tackle the hard topics, often saying what many are thinking but don’t want to speak up about. I like that about myself, but not everyone likes that about me. As I have matured as a person and an employee, I’ve gotten better at being a bit gentler with it than I used to—at least when the situation warrants it. I’m still not great at sugar-coating things, and I feel that I shouldn’t have to when addressing my peers and my higher ups.

We should be able to handle hard truths at these levels. Sometimes I do get tired of being the only one in the group who’s willing to do it. Because it’s risky. Because we as humans don’t always dig critical feedback. I myself still get defensive at times, but I do my best to recognize that and then try to be open to what others are saying. That’s part of my growth in striving to become a better leader; asking myself “why am I defensive about this?” Moving beyond the reaction to get at the value of the feedback or criticism.

I like this year’s Wildland Fire Leadership campaign: Leading Authentically. Leading authentically, to me, means being real. Being true. And that includes even when things aren’t going well or the way I’d like them to go. Looking at and exploring my own short-comings, my own failures in leadership. And owning those decisions/actions/inactions that got me there. Being able to say, out loud, “Wow, I really screwed that up.” Owning it. And then learning from it so I don’t do it again.

The “integrity” principle in wildland fire leadership dovetails right into authentic leadership:
  • Know yourself & seek improvement.
    • Actively listen to feedback from subordinates
  • Seek responsibility & accept responsibility for your actions.
    • Accept full responsibility and correct poor team performance.
  • Set the example.
    • Choose the difficult right over the easy wrong.
I think often of the short story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” written by Hans Christian Andersen. A vain emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two weavers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is either unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid." The emperor's ministers can’t see the clothes themselves, but pretend they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions, and the emperor does the same. Finally, the weavers report that the suit is finished; they mime dressing him, and the emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Finally, a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all; and the cry is taken up by others. The emperor suspects the assertion is true but continues the procession in order to “save face.”

By Robinson, W. Heath (William Heath), 1872-1944 (illustrator). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
[Photo: By Robinson, W. Heath (William Heath), 1872-1944 (illustrator). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
What if I were the emperor? I would certainly hope one of my subordinates or peers would speak up and say, “Hey, Riva. Um, you’re naked,” and spare me the embarrassment of parading myself around the supervisor’s office in my birthday suit (this is a figurative example, folks). I don’t want to surround myself with “yes women” and “yes men.” I want people to call me out. Not only when I may do something that’s personally embarrassing but also if I’m on the verge of doing something that’s harmful or stupid or wrong or dangerous. I particularly want my subordinates to feel they can do this. And if I am to foster a work environment where they feel they can then I must listen to them, I must accept responsibility for poor decisions; and I must correct my decisions, myself. Even when it’s the “difficult right.” If I don’t listen to them, if I don’t follow through; then I am not leading authentically. I’m not leading with integrity. I’m not leading at all.

I hope the other “emperors” in the fire service are open to being authentic leaders. I’m going to call out some hard truths in future essays. All I ask is that folks be open to and accept constructive feedback and criticism. I want managers to take this as a sincere invitation to reflect upon or even reconsider personal criteria for decisions. But mostly I want everyone at my level and above to choose the difficult “rights” over the easy “wrongs.” I’m up for the challenge. Are you?

(Photo: Pixabay)
Authenticity is about imperfection. And authenticity is a very human quality. To be authentic is to be at peace with your imperfections. The great leaders are not the strongest, they are the ones who are honest about their weaknesses. The great leaders are not the smartest; they are the ones who admit how much they don't know. The great leaders can't do everything; they are the ones who look to others to help them. Great leaders don't see themselves as great; they see themselves as human. ~ Simon Sinek

Riva Duncan is an Interagency Fire Staff Officer and blog contributor. All thoughts are those of the author.


Linda Chappell said...

This sounds like a worthy topic and I look forward to more blog posts. Thank you, Riva.

Dave Warnack said...

Good piece, Riva --- I'm game.