The Power of Being You

Success can be a double-edged sword for those in the creative industries. Great work brings accolades, status and promotions – it also brings visibility.  Yet being in the limelight is not always a comfortable place for creatives because the introspective nature of creativity goes hand-in-hand with the often-introverted tendencies of its best practitioners. However, once you take on a leadership position, you have no choice but to step onto the stage in front of your team, your clients and even the industry, and that can be a tough role for the audience-shy to play.

The relentless drive for new business also adds to the constant pressure to perform and conform to our preconceived leadership ideals: the charismatic frontman, the inspiring orator, the powerful figurehead – so most feel huge pressure to live-up to these lofty expectations. Unfortunately, for those in charge, wearing the mantle of ‘leader’ can often make you feel like you’re dressed in someone else’s clothes.

The reality is that creative businesses require their leaders to wear so many hats, you can’t expect to fit them all. Importantly, if you’re not a natural showman, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a hugely effective leader. On the contrary, a recent study called the CEO Genome Project, which spent a decade studying more than 2,000 CEOs, concluded that the most successful ones were actually introverts.  But perhaps this should not be so surprising. If you look at the leaders that are changing the way the world does business, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Arianna Huffington and Elon Musk – these low-key figureheads and ‘introverted entrepreneurs’ are the antithesis of the more aggressive or flamboyant leaders who perhaps more readily fit our Western stereotypes.  Instead, they demonstrate the value of influence over dominance, of substance and strong belief systems over fanfare and showmanship and of the value of inclusiveness and the ability to connect with people. But perhaps the most important thing that this new breed of global leaders has in common, is that they live and breathe the power of being themselves. 

Why faking it fails

As polygraph machines show, when we are untrue to ourselves, our bodies betray us. If you’ve ever tried to fake it, you’ll know that pretending to be someone you’re not is physically and mentally exhausting. It’s not sustainable and the cracks will eventually show.  And it’s not just you it hurts; an ill-at-ease leader will quickly create an environment of anxiety and uncertainty that can crush creativity. Instead it’s the leaders that are comfortable in their own skin that are best able to foster a culture of openness and trust that is essential for creativity. 

Coco Chanel once said, “Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity”. As the industry grapples with constant flux and its leaders with ever-more complex roles, a clear picture is emerging: whatever your natural personality type, bringing authenticity to your leadership may be critical to your success. By following these guiding principles, you can start to harness the true power of being you, whether you’re an introvert, extravert or even an ambivert.

Be You

There’s a reason that thousands of studies have yet to produce a definitive set of characteristics for an ideal leader; it’s because leaders aren’t born leaders. Great leaders emerge from the stories of their lives and from their commitment to understanding how best to apply their unique learning, passion and perspectives in the service of their organisations. The best leaders don’t try and play someone else, they play themselves – brilliantly. As self-awareness is the cornerstone of authenticity, take the time to really understand your strengths and limitations so you can develop practical strategies to powerfully play to the former and mitigate the latter.

As Harvard Business School Professor, Bill George, points out, being an authentic leader comes with responsibility, it’s not an excuse to embrace ‘your inner jerk’ so the best leaders also seek regular, candid feedback from those around them. Remember, getting feedback might not always give you a pat on the back, but it will certainly keep you honest.

Be Principled

An authentic leader is a principled leader, so you need to be clear about what you believe is important to the business and what really drives you. Like an internal compass, your core b values are the principles that guide the choices you make.  They are the ones that incite your strongest feelings and they are at the heart of what motivates you. When your values and behaviours are aligned – your integrity will shine through.

People need their leaders to have conviction, so living and breathing what you feel passionately about is sincere and inspirational. Whilst being authentic won’t necessarily make you popular, if you always strive to do the right thing and are true to what you believe really matters, then even when your decisions are challenging, people will most likely respect you for them.  Standing up for what you believe in may sometimes cost you but leading with your heart will always show you care.

Be Real

When was the last time you made yourself vulnerable by admitting what you don’t know or by owning up to your mistakes? Being transparent demonstrates a willingness to listen and learn that in turn builds trust. In his TED Talk ‘Why good leaders make you feel safe’, Simon Sinek explores the importance of feeling secure at work. Similarly, a recent internal study of team effectiveness at Google, called Project Aristotle, found that “psychological safety” was one of the greatest contributors to team success.

Both argue that when people know they won’t get blamed for their mistakes and feel safe to experiment with their thinking, that’s when real collaboration and innovation starts. Conversely, when a leader is always right or quick to apportion blame, creativity and shared thinking are stifled.

However, as Brené Brown cautions in her book, Daring Greatly, vulnerability is definitely not the same as oversharing. In fact, oversharing has the opposite effect, creating disconnection and distrust. When you’re in charge you have to take responsibility for your emotional impact and that takes self-discipline. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘will my sharing benefit those around me, or am I doing it for myself?’ If the latter, then it’s best to keep it to yourself.  However, as Brown also says, that when used with positive intent, far from being exposing, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”.

Be Open

Authentic leaders surround themselves not just with people that are better than themselves but with people that are different to themselves. They embrace opinions that challenge their own because they fully understand that diversity drives better thinking and decisions.

It takes courage to do this because people are hardwired to like people like themselves, so take conscious steps to ensure you don’t build a team in your own image and proactively look for those that are the yin to your yang. When you learn not to fear being challenged and instead seek out those who will bring a different perspective, your worldview expands and you’ll keep unhelpful biases in check.So keep your strong opinions lightly held and open yourself up to see things in a new light, and you’ll pave the way for brilliant thinking to flourish.

Be Brave

Being authentic is not about having a fixed point of view of yourself, nor an excuse to get set in your ways. Instead the best leaders always see themselves as a work-in-progress. Growth only comes from exposing ourselves to new challenges and trying out new behaviours, so every time we stretch outside our comfort zones, we learn about ourselves and evolve who we are.

If you want to become an inspirational leader, focus on making your life rich with new experiences, expand your horizons and take risks – because it’s in these life experiences that the true substance of authentic leadership is made. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”

In a fast-changing world, where innovation is crucial, we need diverse and genuine leaders more than ever to create the conditions for original thinking and creativity to thrive. So whether you naturally play to the crowd or excel behind the scenes, if you can channel your best qualities and personal passions with humanity and focus, you have a winning formula. Steve Jobs famously said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” So don’t try to conform, embrace who you are and find your distinct voice because you live in a world where there has never been more opportunity for unique creative leaders to shine.

Tanya Livesey