As I help individuals and organizations increase their leadership effectiveness, I occasionally encounter sales department leaders who are looking for keynote speakers. When I ask them about the messages they are trying to get across to their sales teams, I’m not surprised when they use the word ‘leadership’ to tell me that they want their people to sell more product. In such instances, as I probe further, I usually find no distinguishable difference between the sales leader’s use of the word ‘sales’ and the word ‘leadership.’ But those words are decidedly not one in the same. A convenience store near my home helped remind me of that fact just this week.
From the Home of the Slurpee
I was at a 7-Eleven a few days ago when I encountered the free-market, consumer-driven, sales-focused economy in all of its wondrous glory. On the checkout counter in front of me was a stand displaying a product called Zonnic. (See photo.) Zonnic is nicotine gum created for the sole purpose of helping people quit smoking. Directly behind the proudly displayed stand of Zonnic, were rows upon rows of cigarettes. (I could just imagine some poor soul standing there agonizing over which product to buy.)
What is 7-Eleven saying with the ironic proximity of these products? I think its simply saying, “Whatever you want, weʼve got it. Buy it—whatever it is—from us.” As consumers we want what we want when we want it, and 7-Eleven is willing to sell it to us.
Giving us what we want when we want it may be effective in sales, but it is not good practice for leaders. What's relationally convenient for us as followers is for our leaders to agree with all of our thoughts, proposals, and perspectives. But this is NOT what we as followers actually want and need in the long run. What we actually want and need are leaders we can trust. And we’ve never been able to fully trust leaders who are chameleons, modifying their language and points of view to please and connect with others in the moment. We call such people “spineless” or “suck-ups” or worse.
While all that may seem rather obvious, I wonder how many of us think about this in relationship to our own development as leaders. Most of us assume that chameleon-like behavior is “other people’s problem, not mine.” But have we really come to that conclusion through thoughtful investigation? Have we honestly looked in the mirror? Most leaders, even those who are internally secure, can find situations and people that tempt them to morph the expression of their opinions—and maybe even the opinions themselves— so that they, the leaders, have a greater possibility of being liked and approved.
The Ironic Truth About Seeking Approval
If our leadership becomes like sales and advertising—shifting in order to gain approval—we become less effective leaders. When we make a temporary connection with others by carefully editing our opinions, we have begun the process of eroding trust with all whom we lead. As followers observe our editing, they come to know us as relationally pragmatic. (That's just a nice way of saying they will come to know us as inauthentic.) The ironic truth is that when we edit our words to gain others’ approval in the moment, we lose what earns their approval in the long haul—authenticity.
Authenticity in leadership is paramount. It breeds what is likely the most valuable currency in all of leadership, trust. If we are to become the best leaders we can be, we need to cultivate authenticity within ourselves whenever we can. We need to resist the temptation to try to be all things to all people, even our followers. Need motivation to step into the courage it take to be an authentic leader? Just think about the respect and trust you’ve given to the authentic leaders you’ve followed, even those with whom you’ve occasionally disagreed.
Share Your Thoughts: Have you worked with a leader who was quick to modify the expression of his/her opinions in order to create connection with others? How much did you trust that leader? Have you ever followed a leader that was authentic in all circumstances? What was the result of that authenticity? Tell us about it.Join the conversation by clicking here.
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