Dismantling Our Perceptions Of Who A True ‘Leader’ Is

 “Always be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of someone else.”

― Judy Garland


One of the encouraging developments in recent times is the growing recognition of the importance of embracing diversity and creating an inclusive culture in our organizations. Initiatives in this area tend to focus on greater inclusion of traditionally under-represented groups. But I believe diversity still has a long way to go in personal leadership.

In many people’s minds, there is a perpetuating myth about the ideal traits of a leader. Sometimes described as the ‘heroic’ leader, the perception is of someone (often an alpha male) who is strong, confident, has all the answers and leads from the front. Perhaps this bias results from past experiences of being led by others trying to inhabit this archetype… and I think many of us, when ‘leading’ measure ourselves against this unrealistic, and even undesirable, ‘ideal’ (consciously or otherwise).

Worse still, when we buy into the myth, we can believe that if we are to ‘lead’ we need to adopt such traits, which for many feels like pulling on an uncomfortable and ill-fitting business suit. Surely, there must be a better alternative?

There is.

How liberating would it be to adopt a more open interpretation of what it means to be a leader’? If we could attend to an alternative narrative that values diversity in leadership? One that genuinely allows people to lead in a way that celebrates their uniqueness rather than undermining it?

As is often the case with plot twists and intricate story lines, once you see them, they are beautifully simple. The answer turns out to be Authentic Leadership. The leaders we trust the most embrace their whole self, value their own uniqueness and eschew external caricatures that demand conformity. They embody a genuine congruence to the world, as they allow the person they are to be visible to others.

At GAIA Insights, we call this “leading from within” and one of our greatest privileges is sharing this journey with leaders. The path, naturally, is different for everyone, but I believe there are three distinct stages for us to travel.

Step one requires growing in self-awareness: Removing the mask, holding up the mirror and seeing ourselves as we truly are. Understanding what gives purpose, gaining clarity about values, identifying talents and weaknesses. This can take time, as we discern the difference between the labels and judgments we have inherited from others and our authentic selves.

The second step is to practice self-acceptance: Recognizing and celebrating strengths and exercising self-compassion towards weaknesses. This too can be a challenge, because many of us are much harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. It takes humility to acknowledge and truly inhabit our strengths and courage to confront our shadows with kindness.

Finally, self-acceptance does not imply a belief that we are the finished article. The third phase of the journey is self-development. This is the work of a lifetime. The liberating truth is we are not “human beings”, we are “humans becoming” – and the more we embrace this truth, the more we can enjoy the journey towards greater authenticity, and in doing so, embody true leadership.

If we can grasp this truth, it offers the tantalizing prospect of leadership becoming as diverse as humanity itself. Ultimately, I believe that as leadership becomes more diverse, embracing a richer chorus of voices, the prize of finding creative solutions to the systemic challenges facing us today comes to a vital step closer.

Authored by James Salter, Sales Manager at GAIA Insights

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