March 1, 2012
By Mike McAtee, ECC Board Member
As we begin our careers in the corporate world, we are immediately confronted with a number of unanticipated dilemmas: The theories of academia versus the realities of business; the daunting realization that being a top student doesn’t compare to the applied experience of a seasoned practitioner; and the need to fit into a company’s culture without losing ones’ sense of personal identity.
The first two dilemmas are readily overcome by simply applying yourself and gaining experience on the job. However, the paradox of authenticity is more challenging. Large organizations are compelled to develop standards, policies, codes of conduct, and cultural norms in order to work efficiently and manage the chaos that would otherwise ensue. But what about you, the individual? How do companies and employees find the right balance between cultural conformance and individuality? Although it is in the interest of both the company and the employee to do this, the company will rarely take the leading role. It is therefore necessary for the employee to make this balance a priority. Furthermore, the ability to do this in a way that advances the primary mission of the organization is one of the essential elements of real leadership.
So, how does an employee actually accomplish this feat? The answer is simple: by being authentic. Those who aspire to lead must have the courage to be themselves rather than adopt the culture that symbolizes the organization they work for. There are two fundamental reasons behind this. First, if you are not authentic and sincere, you will never be able to establish the critical bonds of trust with peers, subordinates, and superiors that are paramount to being a true leader. In your own experience, have you seen someone promoted who always portrays a façade? You probably asked yourself, “Can’t “they” (i.e. senior management) see that he/she is a complete phony?” Unfortunately, supervisors are often blind to the trappings of those who manage upward effectively, but have no credibility with the rest of the organization. While this may be successful in the short term, eventually the inability of the inauthentic individual to inspire trust will derail his/her ability to lead. The second key issue is that the corporate conformist has no way to stand out in the crowd or to differentiate his/her leadership capabilities from the rest of the employee population. While performance clearly contributes to long term success, leadership qualities are generally much more difficult to distinguish.
Let me illustrate this phenomenon with a personal example from my own career. In the early 90’s, eight years into my professional career, I was asked to work in the corporate headquarters in Germany. This is a massive facility of more than 30,000 employees, with an intensely structured and assimilating culture of conformance. For many months, I was under intense pressure to act and work in line with the norms and expectations of the local culture. Once I overcame the feeling of needing to behave only in the expected way, I started to gain acceptance in the organization by proving that issues and opportunities could be approached successfully in other ways. My unorthodox “American creativity” and can-do attitude enabled me to successfully find breakthroughs in systems and technology that had been unresolved for years. Once my technical credibility had been established, management started to realize that the way I dealt with people was different, and with positive results. By the time I returned to the US, I had cemented my reputation as someone who could catalyze and lead positive change, even in an organization that has incredible internal inertia. This has been a tremendous asset as I’ve moved through multiple roles in the organization over the course of my career.
In the end, there is no magic formula for leadership success. Everyone has to find his/her own formula for success based on the unique talents and perspectives he/she brings to the table as an individual. Nevertheless, there are some imperatives that those who aspire to lead should always adhere to: be honest, be yourself, and be compassionate. Or quite simply: be authentic.