Leaders who serve by telling their stories: the authenticity of witness

Authenticity has many faces…

Leadership researchers talk a lot about personal authenticity based in values, and the ways those values show by what we do and how we lead, not just what we say.

Although I’ve raised a red flag about using biography as authenticity in presidential campaign spin, there’s another way to look at authenticity and biography. When people have had extraordinary or painful experiences, and are willing to share those stories in order to make the world better, biography and authenticity overlap in a teachable moment.

Holocaust Survivors Speak: Never Forget, Never Let it Happen Again…

In the Washington Post this week, Stefanie Dazio profiled five Holocaust survivors who spoke to seventh graders at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring.

“I even myself don’t want to talk about it, but I think they should know these things,” said David Bayer, one of the visitors who told his story. “It’s horror stories.”

Bayer told of how he was just weeks from turning 17 when the Germans invaded Poland. He lived through the ghetto, a labor camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, experimental surgery, death marches and several escape attempts, including one in which he was shot in the leg.

He had been held for six months when he finally got away. It was January 1945, and he found himself hiding in the woods near Auschwitz-Birkenau with two Russian prisoners, living on margarine and snow. Starving, they left the woods after six days, taking a chance. They walked out to find that the Soviets had liberated the camp. “A Russian picked me up and carried me like a sack of potatoes,” he said.

Seventh-grader Simon Gershunskiy, 12, of Rockville said he was moved by Bayer’s speech. “The way that he speaks, because he’s experienced such horrors, it can really touch you,” Simon said. “It was something that I’m very much going to remember,” he said.

With horrific moments in history, remembering is very important. The courage to repeat the story so young people can realize that history is real life is courageous leadership.

Another kind of courage: coming out of the closet in plain sight

Another leader-by-sharing is Ellen Degeneris, comedian, actor and talk show host. She was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for this week.

DeGeneres famously came out as gay on her sitcom, Ellen, in 1997. “It was the right thing for me to do … it happened to help a lot of people and it happened to cause a ruckus. That was a very fearful time in general for the gay community.”

Photo by Alex Brandon, AP

According to USA Today, “DeGeneres’ wife, Portia de Rossi, accompanied her on the star-studded red carpet and sang her praises. “I am very, very proud of Ellen. She’s not only the funniest person I know, but she’s such a good person,” she said. Her favorite thing about DeGeneres? “I really like those little moments that only I recognize as her being her true self, when I can see she’s being vulnerable,” she said.

Stars on the red carpet agreed that DeGeneres’ kindness and contributions to the gay community set her apart. “I like to think that Ellen made Will & Grace possible,” star Sean Hayes said. “And Will & Grace made it possible for Modern Family. (DeGeneres’) fearlessness was her contribution and it continues to be.”

“She’s the one who went in with the machete and did it all by herself,” said Glee star Jane Lynch.”

Coming out when she did was a bold move. There was no guarantee she would have the career she has — that’s by sheer persistence, I expect. Being gay may be common, but being openly gay is far from ordinary, even today. Telling the truth about herself helped a lot of people accept themselves or family members, and learn to laugh at the complicated cultural polarization of sexual identity. It all started with those famous words shouted across the airport in her sitcom: “Mom, I’m gay!” Now she’s blazed a trail for openly gay entertainers by being herself. Not a bad testimony to authenticity and biography.

There are many reasons for leaders to share their stories, and many stories to share…

Just talking about yourself isn’t leadership; these two examples demonstrate how some people become leaders by taking a personal risk, and telling the truth about who they are. Technically, being truthful could make anyone more authentic — and being truthful in the face of unknown, probably negative consequences is authentic courage in the service of a vision.

I’m sure everyone knows someone who has shared a life story honestly, clearly and with purpose. Sometimes the sharing is small — one on one inspirations. Sometimes it’s limited to an organization or small community group. Other times, it’s national or international (you might argue that Malala Yousefzai represents this kind of authentic leader).

When our stories help us lead by example, when they’re used to inspire and teach and transform, they become authentic in the service of transformative leadership.

8 comments

  1. […] many ways, Yousafzai began her work as a leader teaching through witness. Her career as a writer and activist began with a blog at BBC Urdu service in 2009. Her […]

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  2. […] is not an authenticity of identity, but of action. Her words, her conviction, and her determination combine to make her a formidable […]

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  3. […] activist leadership, sometimes witness is a powerful force for change. Our stories become part of authentic practices, and our truths can help set others free, either to […]

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  4. […] In her YouTube video about Project Unbreakable, Grace Brown describes perfectly the power of leadership that speaks truth in a silencing culture. Her photographs of people who experienced rape or sexual abuse empower the subjects as they hold the phrases their abusers used to silence and shame them. This is the power of leadership through art, empowerment through quiet and authentic witness. […]

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  5. […] is one role of the artist leader. It’s all about awakening a community, telling a story, witnessing a world that is hidden, for better or for worse. Reviewing Reed’s 1989 topical album “New York,” Village […]

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  6. […] In modern terms, that translates into believing, and escalating, your own hype. A little authenticity and humility would have gone a long way in preventing a scandal. In both cases, arrogance caught […]

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  7. […] It’s hard to tell the truth. When we try, we get trapped by the lies we’ve been taught to tell and the politics we hide behind tell because it seems easier. Leaders have to stand in the center of our souls, tell the truth, and stop hiding behind euphemisms (words that make ugly things pretty) and cultural assumptions about what’s right and wrong  that make meaningful change harder. Whatever their politics, people who want to lead authentically must transform language into action, starting with the words they choose. Let’s stop spinning and start speaking! […]

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  8. […] leadership as witness, combined with the complicated celebrity leadership role Yousafzai has taken on, shines a powerful, […]

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