[How to Improve Your Leadership Skills] “Everything On One Calendar Please”

Just as  former basketball superstar Michael Jordan, investor Warren Buffett, or businessperson Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t handicap themselves by taking their second-string game to work (e.g. imagine Buffett: “No, we just invest in companies whose names begin with M-Z), you want to take your best self to work and life. It means bringing the whole you – not just a part of you – to life.

In business, the over two decades of evidence-based research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, have given us a pretty good picture of the attributes of people who are seen by their peers, superiors, and subordinates as effective leaders. Their findings – most succinctly framed as the “Five Practices and Ten Commandments of Leadership” – outline what it takes to be an great leader over a period of time.

So what does this have to do with your “whole” self?

Plenty. Credibility, from the Kouzes and Posner research, is the foundation of effective leadership, and credibility starts with “honesty.” Combine it with the Kouzes and Pozner identified best practice of enabling others to act, which involves  building trust, and you have a decent portrait of a chunk of what makes effective leaders so effective: authenticity.

Years ago at McKesson I worked with a woman who was the head of training and development, and I think to the detriment of her professional effectiveness, a deeply closeted lesbian. While it was likely a smart thing to do in terms of job security – McKesson being at that time being like many conservative corporations that struggled with diversity –  it also limited her effectiveness building trust and connection with people. It meant that all the small talk things that people talk about from their personal life were heavily edited, and sometimes absent. While folks didn’t necessarily know she was gay, people sensed that she was holding back some basic part of who she was. And because of that void, she probably never brought her full self to her work.

So what does “authenticity” look like?

Almost like – brace yourself – the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit – authenticity is the quality of being real. The what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality is rare but thanks to changes in the workplace perhaps a little more common. (More on those changes in an upcoming piece.)

Teresa A. Taylor, chief operating officer of Qwest, looks like she has that quality of being authentic, of being real.

In a recent New York Times December 27, 2009 Corner Office interview titled “Everything On One Calendar, Please” she talked about what it was like to be a senior manager, and how she got to where she is. My favorite part? One calendar:

Q. Are there other ways your leadership style has evolved?

A. Well, I would say in the beginning I thought I had to keep work and home very separate. I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do, especially as a woman. You know, you don’t bring up your children and you don’t bring up the fact that you’re having these issues at home. I think young women think you have to be like a man to succeed. I was like that. I just didn’t talk about those things.

After a while, when I brought my personal life into the office, it was O.K. Turns out, other people have kids, too. And, turns out, other people have these issues. I felt more comfortable when I could intertwine them. Now my calendar is one calendar — everything personal and everything professional is on one calendar. I used to keep literally two separate calendars, and then wonder why I missed a few things.

Q. Do you find that women executives still, as you used to do, try to keep things separate?

A. I do. I also think they think they have to make a choice. So my theory on why there are not very many women at higher levels is they think they have to make a choice, and they get overwhelmed, like I was. So they either leave or they make some other personal decisions, even as extreme as divorce or whatever.

But they think they have to choose between the two, and I think it’s hard for women to say: “I don’t have to choose. I can have both. I can have both. It can work. I just need to pull this together, and it’s O.K. that I say to my boss: ‘You know what, I want to leave early because I want to be at the soccer game. But don’t worry, I’ll check back in after the soccer game and finish this.’ ” I think a lot of women don’t want to test the waters like that, because they think the answer’s going to be, “Well, then, you can’t work here.

So this is authentic in action: being candid, being clear, being matter of fact about the things that are both work AND personal. You can see the same qualities in a recent interview that Facebook that Sheryl Sandberg gave to BusinessWeek here. That quality of being honest / authentic – and being competent and dependable – are what you do to build emotional trust and credibility.

In the workplace of today – as opposed to the workplace of your father or mother, the most effective leaders will be the ones that are real, and have brought their whole self – and their first-string capabilities – to their work.