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A secret of successful, effective leadership? Be yourself

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Leadership is intensely personal. What works well for one leader might be completely unnatural for another.

The key to leading is to be yourself. It's less about someone else's idea of how to lead people and more about leading them in the way that is most natural for you — and each of them. Effectiveness for a leader, then, is anchored in self-awareness.

Here's the tricky part — we're fallible. We make occasional bad decisions, we have little quirks that annoy others, we miscommunicate at times and we sometimes misinterpret another's actions. Similarly, others who work with us are also fallible. They make the occasional bad decision, they have little quirks that annoy us, they miscommunicate at times, and they sometimes misinterpret our actions.

I see the best leaders, the ones who inspire others to higher levels of performance by balancing a caring heart with a relentless drive for results, as people who are very clear about their strengths and the strengths of others, who seek out feedback to better understand themselves and who have enough self-confidence to humbly adjust their behavior.

Let's compare the story of two leaders. Dom is kind of feisty. She directly confronts issues and pushes hard to come to conclusion. She knows that she has little patience and wants every task and project completed ahead of schedule. She has succeeded in her company because of her drive as an individual contributor, not because of her outstanding people skills. She has joked on more than one occasion that she doesn't like people. She's a hard-charging, production machine.

The other leader, Fulgencio, is the consummate players' manager. He looks to build consensus. He takes time to build intimate relationships with each member of his team. Fulgencio knows his business and got to his position by fostering bonds with clients and colleagues alike.

If you had to pick one or the other to report to, Fulgencio would be the likely choice of most people based on these surface descriptions.

Now, if we examine a little further, we find that Dom is very open about her lack of people skills. She recognizes her impatience and knows it can intimidate people and come across as harsh. She constantly seeks feedback from her team and others in the organization to determine whether she is properly regulating her tendencies and best using her natural gifts in the way that will help everyone succeed.

She recognizes that she'll slip into bad patterns at times, and when she does, she quickly and sincerely apologizes for her gaffe. Even better, she has created an environment within the team where everyone else is free to be himself.

Everyone feels safe discussing Dom's shortcomings with her, admitting their flaws and working on improving themselves, not by fixing their limitations but by playing to their strengths. Dom has also made it clear that poor performance is unacceptable and that by leveraging the best in each other, all goals can be exceeded.

Fulgencio, on the other hand, thinks disagreements that cause even moderate tension should be avoided. His desire for everyone to act harmoniously causes people to keep many of their thoughts to themselves. "Go along to get along" has become the unspoken yet insidious team motto.

Because Fulgencio is so intent on a calm, agreeable work environment, it is too much of a risk for anyone to point out his bad habits as well as admit theirs. Just as dangerous, he ignores the uniqueness of others and allocates projects based on how fair he thinks the workload is distributed.

His intimacy is built around people's families and hobbies, vitally important information for a leader to know but by itself not the stuff that gives each person the freedom to be herself. It's also not the knowledge a leader needs to build a high performing team.

The saga of two imperfect leaders: One sharpens her self-awareness and that of her team members, while the other plods along in ignorance. One succeeds by knowing herself, one fails by being himself.

Try this: In an effort to increase your self-awareness, ask individual members of your team these two questions and be sure not to defend yourself or be critical of their answers. Discuss with the person how you might be able to implement the suggestions.

What's one thing I could start doing that would make me a better leader for you?

What's one thing I should stop doing that would make me a better leader for you?

Joe Bertotto is principal of the Strengths*Life Project, a consultancy dedicated to helping individuals realize their best self, to the advancement of servant leadership and to creating great workplaces built on high care, high performance and high accountability. Contact him at

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