BE Yourself: Authentic leadership as a spiritual practice

Be Yourself. That’s the advice we get when we launch ourselves into the world, full of dreams that we can lead a revolution in thinking, knowing, being. We choose a career, submit to the training required, and dive into our vocation. Most of us want to “be the change we want to see in the world,” as Gandhi is often quoted as saying.  All of us, especially in the United States, want to be ourselves. But what does that mean for us as people and as leaders?

When I hear people talk about authenticity, I hear us talking about the dream of having enough power, courage and strength to “be yourself.” But truly authentic leaders, if they sustain the heroic work of authenticity, become themselves differently over time. Authenticity is not an identity, it a discipline, a habit. In many ways, it is a spiritual practice. It is a way of being that responds to our calling in the world, the unique gifts we have to share.

Here’s Henri Nouwen (Priest, Teacher, Author, Spiritual Leader)about the call to “be yourself:”


Photo by Carol Burbank

“Often we want to be somewhere other than where we are, or even to be someone other than who we are. We tend to compare ourselves constantly with others and wonder why we are not as rich, as intelligent, as simple, as generous, or as saintly as they are. Such comparisons make us feel guilty, ashamed, or jealous. It is very important to realize that our vocation is hidden in where we are and who we are. We are unique human beings, each with a call to realize in life what nobody else can, and to realize it in the concrete context of the here and now. We will never find our vocations by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do. Be yourself!”

Authenticity is a spiritual practice because it is an opportunity to be whole in the world as we make our small part of the world more whole. If the “triple bottom line” for leadership takes the social-environmental-financial focus of institutions into corporate practice, authenticity is the human experience of living relationships from a personal “triple bottom line” — spirit-mind-body. Whatever your idea of the divine or the human spirit might be, effective authentic leaders connect holistically from themselves to offer their special gifts.
So, what are the key ways of being for authentic leaders? Whatever helps us live as whole leaders, growing and flexible and responsive, helps us be and become and transform ourselves in meaningful ways. We know we’re on the right track when we can live with mindfulness and joy, grounded in our values.

1. Mindfulness: Bill George wrote a fascinating article about the ways mindfulness and meditation helped him be authentically present through his remarkable career. He said, “Meditation helps me relieve the stress of the day, gain clarity about what’s important, open up creative ideas, and find added energy and a deep sense of well-being.” A practice that helps us BE PRESENT to ourselves means we can be present in the world authentically, without being blinded by ego.

2. Joy: Peter Bregman celebrates emotional connection, and the willingness to express our joy and excitement as we struggle, fail and succeed. He wrote: “Years ago, when emotional intelligence became the next big thing, I thought that, perhaps, it would give us permission to express ourselves more authentically in our workplaces. It might teach us how to hold the emotions of others, to sit quietly, empathically, with someone who was crying, without trying to fix what was wrong. Or to celebrate our successes without losing our compassion toward others, whether they be friends or opponents.” He calls for an authenticity that takes our passion out of our heads and into our lives! Being willing to express ourselves emotionally is part of our whole self, our authentic BEing. 

3. Values: When we live relationships based in our values, not out of a rigid sense of who we are, we find out that authenticity is very flexible. I’ve called it “shapeshifter leadership,” a practice of embracing ourselves in many roles. “When mind, heart and spirit work together with integrity, the ego lets go of the shoulds and oughts and musts that limit our identity. We don’t have to hold on to one story, one way of being, one kind of relationship. We can live in integrity with the values we hold dear without growing unnecessarily “solid” in our self-expression.”

What daily practices help you connect with the “triple bottom line” of authentic leadership? What does an authentic leadership practice look like in your life?


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