How do Authentic Leaders’ Make Life Empowering?

Authentic leaders are revered the world over. The question, though, is how do you become one? And do you want to be part of the “Authentic Leaders” club in the first place?

Here’s the promised second part on Leadership Lessons from Dr. Alexander’s remarkable debut book Close to Where the Heart Gives Out1. You can catch the first part here

Authenticity does not come easily – especially in today’s world. We have 24*7 recommendations from social media on who we should be and what we should do. And yet, there are three super lessons from the book that I believe will get us thinking. They can be our guideposts toward our Authentic Leadership journey.

Authentic Leaders don the right role at the right time

We all play multiple roles in our everyday life. You may be a Manager at work. At home, you play the role of a son, a father, a husband. You are also a cricketer and a volunteer at the Orphanage. Society has badges for you – working-mother, single parent, millennial, Digital Creative. When you think about it, you play a thousand roles.

There is an unwritten hierarchy of roles – some roles take priority over others. But this is a predominantly unconscious process for most of us. Making it conscious can be super illuminating on how we lead our lives.  

In the book, Dr. Alexander and his wife (also a doctor) are expecting a baby, and Dr. Alexander is helping put the documentation together.

‘What name do you want on your antenatal card, Maggie?’ I ask as I walk into the kitchen. Do you want to be Mrs. Alexander or Dr. Simpson on the card?’

‘I’ll be Mrs. Alexander, just like all the other times.’

Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition.

It seems like such simple dialogue. And yet, it holds a powerful secret. These people are comfortable choosing roles based on their comfort, not on society’s expectations. Dr.Maggie Alexander is an accomplished Doctor and a mother – and she chooses which title to use based on her needs. Authentic Leaders have the ability to choose roles on their own terms.

But Changing roles is not easy

Changing roles is never easy. Society pushes social norms on us with “what is acceptable” tags that we often don’t question. 

Let’s look at two Authentic Leaders. My favorite example of someone who was super clear on his role hierarchy is Clayton Christensen, the master Innovation Guru and Harvard professor. Now the Professor was also a devout Christian and therefore observed Sabbath on Sundays. Sometimes work beckoned on Sunday (a pivotal football match, a presentation to be put urgently together for a client).

Mr.Christensen had to therefore choose between being a devoted Christian and observing Sabbath or being an “extra” committed workman. The Professor decided that for him, keeping the Sabbath was more important. When his bosses and coach pushed him to make an exception, he was clear – values cannot be percentages. You are either 100% honest or dishonest – you cannot be 95% honest. And this clarity on his hierarchy of values helped him create the masterpiece “How will you measure your life?“2.

Sridhar Vembu (the CEO of Zoho Corp) is committed to rural growth. His traditional attire, contributions to the rural industry and celebrations of village life, decision to not go for outside capital all point to how he is committed to living his value.

A word of caution, though – choosing roles is not about making a statement. It is about being comfortable in our skins and living our lives as we deem most appropriate for us. The best way to check if you are living a value or being influenced unconsciously by a society/media push is to ask yourself these questions.

Do I live this value, or do I only talk about this? 

Will I live this value even if no one pays me or glorifies me?  

If the answer is yes, you are onto a good thing!

An Authentic Leaders’ crash-course in role-based empathy:

It’s appraisal time. As a Manager, you have to appraise your team. You spend time with your team, letting them know about the need for self-critique. You do a great job of addressing their concerns.

The next day, it’s your turn to be appraised by your Manager. How comfortable are you with the process? Are you the copybook appraisee that you recommended your appraisees to be? Does your Manager give you a complete view? Or are there areas you need more clarity on – but are uncomfortable asking?

Dr.Alexander brilliantly summarizes the confusion Doctors have when they turn patients.

Doctors don’t become patients easily; we are disorientated, like looking in a mirror with everything the wrong way around. We’re used to moving freely, wandering into duty rooms, getting answers to our questions, or finding them for ourselves in records and reports. As patients, we’re disabled, unsure of the language to use. Should we use our technical language or the language of a patient? In our confusion, we often choose to say very little, closing in on ourselves and letting events unfold. Aware of her confusion and anxiety, I couldn’t find the words to help her, and uneasiness settled on us both when the hesitant call finished.

Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out, Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition

But there’s one (bigger) challenge waiting for you!

The added challenge is when your Manager assumes you know how things should work – as you are a Manager yourself.

Here’s Dr.Alexander summarizing this feeling:

Senior medics seem to do that. Make a statement and then walk away without asking if you’re okay with the information they’ve just given you. There’s a sense that we should know the detailed ins and outs of any situation because, after all, we’re doctors too. Actually, I’m not a doctor today, I’m a relative, with all the hopes and anxieties of any new father-to-be. I want someone to treat me like that and not assume I’m comfortable.

Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out,. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition

Many managers (and maybe you have done this to leaders reporting to you) give you the summary without preamble and walkaway. They presume you’ll fit in the dots. For you, questions remain – are you in the right place, how are you being perceived, are you in line for the “big” opportunities…

The confusion is real – and it’s because we are playing two different roles. When we separate them and treat each of them on its merit, things get better.

Role confusion is not unique to work roles. Imagine how you would handle the following life roles – take a situation from either role, and you’ll perceive this:

  • As a mother and as a daughter
  • How you behave as a teacher and as a student
  • What you do as a creator and as a consumer.

When we separate the roles and immerse ourselves in each other, we can see the situation in all its glory. More importantly, we don’t feel constrained.

A final point: Putting a brave face – and yet staying vulnerable

As a leader, you often put up a brave face when you may not have an answer. It’s required – for keeping up the morale.

Here’s a sample of a daily letter Alexander sends his wife, who is away at the hospital undergoing medical attention.



Hiya. It’s me,

Ah well! Hoped it might be someone handsome, eh! I’m hiding in the front room at the moment. The human tornado is busy in the kitchen. Did you know a mouse had been in the pot cupboard?? It’s been well and truly gutted – the cupboard, not the mouse, although that may follow if I can’t rescue it. I think the mice know Nana is here.

We sat at supper in the kitchen while they danced under the bathroom floor! Nana is well, as you can tell. Mary phoned tonight and was pleased to hear you were feeling better. I don’t always give the full picture on the phone. Peedie seems back to normal. He ate four helpings of the rice pudding I made. Even Nana seemed to approve of it and ate a fair helping. Even if it did have two small black bits in it. Probably mouse droppings from the pot cupboard!!

Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition

The care-free, fun-looking letter hides anxiety within. Being doctors, they understand the medical condition’s intricacies fully well.

As leaders, we are faced with the same dilemma.

As leaders’ we project ourselves as super calm, sober leaders and ensure our teams’ morale is high. But deep inside, we know the challenges.

Authentic leaders surface the anxieties to themselves. They realize that their calm demeanor is part of the façade – necessary, but a façade all the same. And they acknowledge and think through the anxieties at leisure.

Knowing the right answer and living with it are two very different things. I need to see the way forward, connect the various elements of a situation, line them up, and examine them to find pathways through. These rapidly planned routes and actions allow me to appear calm, in control. People have said to me how flexible I am, laid-back, they think. I’m not; I just think quickly and reach solutions, joining the dots with straight lines that appear curved and flowing. Antoni Gaudi once said, ‘The straight line is made by man, the curved line by God.’

Alexander, Malcolm. Close to Where the Heart Gives Out. Michael O’Mara. Kindle Edition

Why is this necessary? Because it is easy to be carried away by the applause of people around on you on how calm and collected you are – and start believing that yourself. And if that happens, you may end up believing in your own “invincible hero story” and end up taking unwarranted risks.

So there you have it – some lessons from a beautiful book on Authentic Leadership. If you can spare a couple of hours, I recommend you pick the book – it’s genuinely a lovely, lovely book.




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