Is there anyone besides me who hates those stock photos of “business people” that appear in the brochures and websites for conferences, business schools, and cell phone companies? It seems that every time business people are represented they’re in this standard configuration: there’s the good-looking white guy (often slightly older & graying at the temples—is this who’s really in charge?), the African American woman, an Asian man or woman, and someone who looks vaguely Hispanic. And they’re all looking thoughtful and earnest.
Check it out…someone’s holding a pen, poised to write down some powerful insight; someone else is gently touching his or her chin, indicating reflective contemplation; and another person is looking at a computer monitor or spreadsheet as if peering into a box of gold. And they’re all having such a wonderful time! Their expressions say, “I’m a real business person! Look at me looking earnest.”
It’s so canned, it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. If you’ve worked in business for at least a month, you know that’s NOT how it really is. In 30 years of consulting, training and coaching leaders, I’ve been in many leadership meetings with clients where real conversations were happening, and none of them looked or felt like that. Not one.
What yanks my chain most is that this widely-used advertising image of business people permeates our subconscious, which is willing to absorb just about anything we’re willing to stash in it. It then says, “Oh, okay…I guess that’s how business people are supposed to look and act.” It sets us up for acting artificial, overly-poised, and inauthentic.
Which makes having the real conversations that our businesses depend on more difficult to have.
If people play-act their way through meetings, pretending there aren’t troubling issues, or avoiding conflict, or making nicey-nice, there’s no way to build the trust needed to get down to bedrock so they can talk about what matters most in the moment. Everyone’s playing a role, cautiously avoiding topics that feel threatening and might lead to conflict, or worse—embarrassment.
This kind of inauthenticity comes in three major flavors, each measured by the Leadership Circle Profile in the Reactive Dimensions: Controlling, Protecting and Complying. If you’re unfamiliar with the power of the Profile to uncover these stratagems, take a look: www.leadershipcircle.com.
The Better Possibility
Leaders have the chance to model authenticity and honesty over looking good and in-control. No, I’ll go further: they have the responsibility to do so. And when they do—choosing to be truly themselves instead of acting like they think they’re supposed to—people respond in kind. Defenses are lowered and trust grows.
At The Leadership Circle, and our consulting arm, Full Circle Group, we believe in “the promise of leadership.” It’s an implicit promise made by everyone who accepts a formal leadership role to lead in a way that focuses followers on creating what matters most, and releases the untapped reserves of energy tied up in caution and anxiety. To fulfill this promise requires leaders to courageously invite people first into honest conversations about what’s really going on.
Risking vulnerability is the key here. Leaders and followers alike will create greater trust and higher productivity by simply being who they are—showing their true selves—rather than wasting energy being someone who they think others expect them to be. We’re all in the same boat; we all pose now and then, acting as if we know more than we do, pretending we’re never surprised, and that we’ve got everything under control. However, as soon as a respected leader openly admits that they feel this way, and commits to dropping the pretense, a collective sigh of relief blows through the room. Then the real conversations can begin to happen: real concerns can be expressed, true emotions surfaced, and honest requests made. By going first, the leader makes everyone else’s decision to relax and “show up” just a bit easier.
So, the next time you find yourself in one of those stock photos, notice your own sense of yourself: are you putting on a bit of an act, posing as if…? Are you censoring your thinking? Working hard to say things in just the right way? Trying to “get it right?” Is there something that everyone in the room, or on the call, seems to be colluding to avoid talking about?
Then this is your moment.
Take a breath, let your shoulders drop, and let the group know that you want to say something that feels risky to you. Perhaps you want to surface a topic that feels “undiscussable” to you, or put a half-baked thought out there (or whatever), but that you feel uncertain and a bit vulnerable about it. Naming your own caution and anxiety is the courageous act—often more so than the discussing the topic itself. So just do it. Get it over with and put your thinking out there. Invite others to follow suit and share their perspectives. Invite disagreement, and demonstrate non-judgmental listening. Make room for people to express their discomfort…that’s all part of moving into the real conversation that wants to happen.
The choice to show up as my true self is one I must make every day, every meeting, every conversation. It often feels like swimming upstream. It’s an acquired taste, and it takes some getting used to. But I know that when I stay with it, I eventually feel a sense of freedom from anxiety, and my caution fades. And others respond in kind. It’s the way to true connection with others; there is no other path. We’re all tired of holding up the masks, the business personas. We want to be real, true people, not role players. And we know that leaders who truly connect at multiple levels (head and heart) with those they lead, are the ones who create the trust for others to show their true selves. Let’s let the posers stay in the brochures.