By Laura Rittenhouse – Originally published on Forbes.com
A friend was in the running recently to be named CEO of the company he had worked at for 10 years. Both internal and external candidates were being considered. When asked why he wanted the job – besides more money and power – he said, “I want a challenge. I want to grow new businesses and expand into new geographies. I want to use the leadership skills I have developed over the years and develop new skills.”
These were fine reasons, but they didn’t ring true. I suspected there was more, so I kept pressing him. One day, he declared, “Because I want to restore the company to its greatness.” In that moment, I knew my friend would be the next CEO. By connecting with a purpose bigger than himself, he spoke from the power of his authentic voice.
My blog on “Why Words are as Important as Numbers in Business” sparked some chatter about authentic leadership. It reminded me of my 2001 interview on authenticity and leadership with the Center for Courage and Renewal founder, Parker Palmer. His observations, recorded in an article called, “Leading from the Heart”, are as true today as they were when we talked back in 2001.
In his succinct guide, Let Your Life Speak, Palmer inspires us to explore our authentic voices. His voice was shaped by a decision to abandon his promising career in higher education and search for work that would “match his greatest gladness with the world’s greatest need”. But instead of opening up new possibilities, this choice led to setbacks. Discouraged, he told a wise Quaker woman that so many doors had closed behind him, he must surely have chosen the wrong vocation. She replied that in all her years, “way has never opened up in front of me.” But at the same time, “a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.”
In Google’s 2010 shareholder letter, co-founder Sergey Brin described his authentic path to creating Google. He told how his father had lacked the freedom in the Soviet Union to pursue his chosen career in mathematics, but continued to study it in his spare time. When Brin was four, his father managed to get official permission to travel outside the Soviet Union and attend a mathematics conference in Warsaw. Brin wrote that this journey “changed the course of our lives.”
Contrary to what my father had been taught, the mathematicians from the other side of the Iron Curtain were not monsters. They were fellow scientists who shared the same passions. The key difference was that they were free: free to travel, and above all they were free from fear of their own government. That small but powerful piece of information drove my family to flee the Soviet Union two years later and start a new life in the United States.
How did this shape Brin’s purpose? In his shareholder letter, he described the mobile phone revolution that has connected billions of people around the world to the Internet. He observed:
As a result, the trickle of information that made its way into closed societies such as the USSR when I was a child has now become a torrent – and millions of people living under totalitarian regimes are able to glimpse freedom every day of their lives, albeit virtually.
Brin merges his authentic voice with universal themes of understanding, creativity and purpose. To do this he needed to step outside himself. This allowed him to see how we are all interconnected by a desire for individual freedom.
Personal reflections like Brin’s are not typically found in shareholder letters or CEO speeches. These may reveal vulnerability, a sign some might view as weakness. Nike founder and former CEO Phil Knight, however, did just that in his 2002 shareholder letter. He described how he saw the events after 9/11, as a threshold defining who we can become:
We entered FY ’02 with a 1% decline in U.S. futures orders. We had our work cut out for us. Then came September 11, and with it a bow wave of uncertainty. Restaurants, stadiums, theme parks, and malls, all thinner of crowd, showed the wan face of anxiety. We were at a threshold, one of those defining moments that pop up out of nowhere in every life, both individual and corporate. You can cross that threshold with courage or turn away in fear. Either way, you change forever.
Knight’s reflection reminds me to ask: How have the difficult events in my life allowed me to grow my authentic leadership voice? Am I leaping ahead with courage or retreating in fear? How firmly am I anchored to a purpose bigger than myself?