Monthly Archives: April 2015

Demonstrating authenticity

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”  – Brene Brown

HERCI’ve just returned from an energizing meeting of the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC) national board in Chicago. The consortium is a member-governed organization that focuses on attracting talent to colleges and universities around the country. This morning I was reflecting on why I enjoyed it so much.

I was so impressed with my fellow board members. Each of them are passionate about their work in recruiting faculty, staff, and executive leaders and providing recruiting resources to colleges and universities in their regions. And they are committed to helping guide the national organization to make sure that it is meeting its member institution needs. In short, they each demonstrated authenticity from the executive director of HERC on down.

This authenticity was visible in how the executive director invited board members to actively engage in generating ideas and discussing future directions for HERC, offering up their talents and perspectives.  Not surprisingly, authenticity was demonstrated most strongly in how differences of opinion were allowed to be voiced and explored. Rather than curtailing difficult discussions around priorities and limited resources, members were encouraged to present their perspectives, and argue passionately and respectfully on behalf of their region’s needs.

It feels great to be part of an organization that is led authentically. It allows everyone else to participate authentically as well:  to show up, be real, be honest, and let their true selves be seen.

Anita Rios



The thrill of authentic leadership

jay skate on thin ice“The wonderful and terrifying thing is you always feel a certain amount of risk is involved,” says Lowrie. “When you’re the first to get on it and there are no skate marks, you don’t really know how safe it is. But you know you’re the first.”  (Sag Harbor Express)

Authentic leadership is based on being trustworthy and on trusting others. And trusting others requires risk. You may get hurt or taken advantage of. Yet, as I have learned from my friend, pictured above, taking a risk to skate on the new ice can be worth it. But you need to be smart! That means doing some research and then making a judgement to go for it. The payoff is amazing!

Stephen M.R. Covey describes the same process in his book, Smart Trust. He highlights that leaders must use judgement when extending trust, particularly in the low-trust environment present in many organizations. Understanding our own willingness to trust others, combined with an analysis of the situation, can facilitate the decision to extend trust and be a truly authentic leader.

Covey presents a process and a matrix to help leaders extend trust smartly.

The firstSmart-Trust-Matrix step is to honestly assess our own personal tendency to trust others. Is it high or low?

Next leaders need to analyze the current situation using three variables.

  1. What is the current situation or opportunity? Clearly describe what you are trusting the other person to do.
  2. What is the level of risk? Identify the degree of risk in this situation. This include the possible outcomes, and their likelihood and importance.
  3. What is the credibility of the person? Use your past experience or seek other opinions to determine how much faith you have in the other person.

Opening ourselves up to the transparency and trust required to be authentic can be as scary as skating on thin ice. However, when we combine a willingness to trust others with an analytical process we can make smart decisions and open ourselves up to the thrill of authenticity in our leadership.

Todd Thorsgaard


Achieving disagreement

talkingFirst, why would one want to “achieve disagreement”? Don’t we have enough disagreements already in our churches and society? Actually, we don’t. What we have, most of the time, are competing public monologues… This is not real disagreement; this is a shouting match.   –Alan Wisdom

I learned about a new concept over the weekend while listening to the NPR program, On Being. The panelists talked about “achieving disagreement” – the idea that you can’t authentically disagree until you have fully listened to the others’ side and understand the legitimacy of their viewpoints. They were discussing a very contentious and divisive issue, and doing it in a respectful and productive way.

The quote above comes from this article by Presbyterian author Alan Wisdom. While the idea of achieving disagreement comes out of civil and religious movements, it relates to authentic leadership in higher education as well. We have our own set of contentious issues, and often have difficulty working collaboratively to move forward on mutual goals.  How might things be different if we:

  • Understood the areas where we agree, as well as where we disagree
  • Recognized how the other parties came to their conclusions
  • Could respond to the others’ arguments from their point of view
  • Could focus on the legitimate differences in judgment and perception that led to our differing positions

A comment from the radio program struck me as particularly relevant to authentic leadership. The speaker talked about doubt, which he defined as “believing you may not be right, even when your argument is passionately  held.” You can hear an excerpt here.

This stance goes against our U.S. culture and our commonly-held definition of leadership. Don’t leaders need to be decisive and firm in their chosen actions? Yes, but like many other leadership traits, it needs balance. Holding space for doubt is one way to lead authentically.

Achieving disagreement may be the first step in the productive dialogue that we badly need in higher education. How have you seen this play out where you work?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Too much authenticity?

ball_and_chain_stuck_commitment_responsibility_duty_obligation_stress_struggle_bound_determination_willpower_resolve_fotolia_23966013-100410019-primary.idgeHave you heard yourself, or other leaders, saying “I was just being me,” or “this is my style” at work? Sounds like authenticity, right? However, it can also be a warning sign of TMA, Too Much Authenticity.

Professor Herminia Ibarra, author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader  (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), describes the Authenticity Paradox in the January-February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review.* She highlights two situations that all leaders face and how holding too firm to a self-image can derail success.

Moving into a new role.

Leaders face very different challenges as they move up the leadership pipeline. The scope of issues increase, the risks and rewards are greater and performance expectations change. What worked in the past may not work as well in the new situation. Leaders can stymie the growth and flexibility needed to succeed in their new roles if they don’t try out new responses and behaviors, even if they feel different than “who I am.”

Hearing and processing negative feedback.

Successful leaders often struggle to correctly interpret negative feedback. Not only is it hard to hear it can easily be misinterpreted as a style comment. Focusing on how well a style worked in the past can cause us to dismiss valid feedback or resist trying out new behaviors. New behaviors that may be different than “my view of myself” but important to success and growth.

What to do?

Authentic leadership and being true to yourself requires us to both know who we are and to be willing to revise who we are over time. Too much authenticity can be a code for an unwillingness to try out new behaviors. Ibarra suggests that we adopt a “playful frame of mind.” Actively try new ways of doing something, ask questions differently, work on new projects and explore what you learn about yourself. Stay true to your core values but purposely challenge your view of yourself with unfamiliar action and embrace what you learn.

Todd Thorsgaard

*Jan-Feb 2015 HBR article


Optimal transparency

transparent water drops“I’d always rather err on the side of openness. But there’s a difference between optimum and maximum openness, and fixing that boundary is a judgment call. The art of leadership is knowing how much information you’re going to pass on — to keep people motivated and to be as honest, as upfront, as you can. But, boy, there really are limits to that.” —Warren Bennis

Last Friday while watching the evening news, I saw our former governor Arne Carlson on TV. He was calling for the ouster of the University of Minnesota’s President Kaler, saying that he perpetuated a cover up of serious ethical issues in the handling of a mentally ill drug trial patient a decade ago. While Kaler was not leading the University at the time of the incident, Carlson asserts that Kaler did nothing to bring light to the situation once he assumed leadership of the institution and instead was complicit in the cover up.

Likewise, the MnSCU administration was hit hard in the news over last year from faculty unions and others who criticized Chancellor Rosenstone for signing a $2 million dollar contract with an external consultant to begin a change initiative, without disclosing the decision to the full Board or MnSCU’s employees.

Stories like these pop up in all our organizations. Employees and stakeholders have higher expectations of transparency in leadership now more than ever. They expect leadership to be open, authentic, and to tell the truth in a way that can be verified. Any hint of hidden agendas or obfuscation reduces trust in leadership.

At the same time, leaders have to balance transparency with issues of confidentiality. I’m sure that neither leader I mentioned above intended to hide information from employees or the public. The dilemma lies in the judgment call that Warren Bennis refers to in his quote above. Where is that boundary between maximum and optimum openness?

As Steven M.R. Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust, there must be a responsible balance in transparency. While he advocates erring on the side of disclosure and not hiding information, he also says, “Good, common sense would tell you that you don’t talk about confidential matters, private conversations, or other things you don’t have a right to talk about.”

Here are a couple questions Covey suggests you might consider in creating more transparency:

  1. Ask yourself,  Am I withholding information that should be shared? If so, ask yourself why.
  2. Ask yourself, In my work with various stakeholders, what difference would it make if I were more transparent? Then look for ways to appropriately increase transparency.

Leaders can also engender great trust when they create open lines of communication with their employees and stakeholders. This is especially important when something unexpected happens. During times of crisis or the unexpected, leaders need to consider how much can and needs to be disclosed. Or if legal risks or confidentiality prevent details from being disclosed, consider what can be communicated.

How do you create optimal transparency in your role?

Anita Rios

When I grow up

grow upI occasionally go to a conference, hear a really excellent keynote, and say “I want to be that person when I grow up.” Examples include Malcolm Gladwell, Parker Palmer, and Anne Lamott. I don’t mean that I want to be exactly like them, but rather that there are aspects of their leadership that I would like to emulate in my own way.

I’d like to see the connections between ideas the way Gladwell does. I’d like to have the common-sense spirituality of Lamott, and to be able to express it through my writing the way she can. And when I grow up I’d like to be the kind of respected elder that Palmer has become.

But here’s the catch. If I want to be a respected elder, who represents a lifetime of kindness, generosity, and wisdom, I can’t get there by doing exactly the same things he did. It’s not possible, and even if it was we are different people. Just like all leaders, we approach things in different ways and learn different lessons from the same event.

What I can do is learn from their leadership lessons and figure out how to apply it to my own leadership journey. Do I like to make connections between ideas? Then I’d better read a lot and see what other smart people have to say, to learn what ideas are out there and how they apply to my life. Do I admire someone’s writing ability? Then I should take her advice and practice writing – a lot. Do I admire how someone shows up in the world? Then I should evaluate my own choices and behaviors to see if they reflect those values.

Being an authentic leader is something we each have to do on our own, but there are many teachers along the way.

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Don’t lose control

“It is wisdom to know others. It is enlightenment to know one’s self.” 


Anita highlighted Kevin Cashman’s first touchstone of authentic leadership – Know Ourselves Authentically  – in her post last week.* We must understand what is important to ourselves and how that influences our behavior in order to become a truly authentic leader.

When I am at my best it is pretty easy to look inward, examine my values and priorities, and make choices that support them. It gets much harder to do that when my buttons are being pushed in a conflict or when I disagree with someone. Conflict often causes us to lose control and react  in a way that doesn’t support our values. I’m not even sure I want to know myself then! Yet, these are the times that we can truly demonstrate our ability to stay authentic and make choices aligned with our values.

The five “styles” of resolving conflict identified by Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes Instrument, TKI, can help leaders better understand their immediate reactions when in conflict and use that awareness to stay in control of their reactions. We use this instrument in our leadership development programs at MnSCU. No style is better; we need to be able to use all of them. Having the ability to flex between styles can help us express ourselves authentically.

The five styles represent the unique value each of us place on our own point of view in a conflict and the value we place on preserving the relationship with the other person. While taking the actual assessment is best, asking yourself which style describes your default reaction in conflict can help you better understand yourself.

TKImodelTKI Modes of Conflict**

  1. Competing – Attempt to win the conflict. High value on own point of view, low value on preserving the relationship.
  2. Collaborating – Attempt to work together during conflict. High value on own point of view, high value on preserving the relationship.
  3. Compromising – Attempt to negotiate the conflict. Mid value on own point of view, mid value on preserving the relationship.
  4. Avoiding – Attempt to deflect or sidestep the conflict. Low value on own point of view, low value on preserving the relationship.
  5. Accommodating – Attempt to yield or concur during conflict. Low value on own point of view, high value on preserving the relationship.

Pausing and reflecting on how we lead during conflict can be challenging but the insight will be a powerful part of your authentic leadership journey,

Todd Thorsgaard

* How do you show up in the world?

** Kilmann Diagnostics

Listening authentically

listeningIn last week’s blog, I personally committed to working on my listening skills. To tamp down that automatic urge I have for interrupting someone before they have finished what they are saying. And to listen fully, without formulating a response in my head while they are talking. I’ve been doing pretty well with my resolution over the week, but it’s amazing how quickly those resolutions to listen authentically can devolve when someone comes to you with a conflict situation and emotions are charged.

Last month at a professional development event, Karmit Bulman, executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center, shared a helpful 3-step strategy for listening and reflecting to someone who comes to you with a conflict.

Step 1: Ask the person to share the details of the conflict, problem, or issue with you.

Step 2: Listen carefully, without making judgments or giving advice.

Step 3: Reflect what you heard back to the individual. First, reflect the feelings that you observed, summarize the facts, and state the values you heard being confronted in the conflict.

Here’s an example of what that 3-step process might look like in action:

A student comes into your office upset about a bad experience with their advisor. Rather than going straight into advice mode, you listen carefully, ask for any pertinent details, and then begin reflecting. You might say:

“I can see you are angry and you feel frustrated by your last interaction with your advisor. You expected to have an advisor who could support your career goals and give you constructive advice on which courses to take next semester. Instead he told you that girls often don’t like the science required in your major and that you should consider a different career path. This threatened your sense of competence and your identity as a young woman.” 

While as a leader, you may follow-up responsibilities in this scenario, it is important to first listen authentically. The student then feels both that you have heard and understood her and are willing to help her move forward with an action plan for next steps to resolve the conflict.

During a professional development event, we actually practiced this 3-step process and it was amazing how it both diffused the emotions and improved my ability to listen authentically. The process of summarizing the facts lets the individual know that you really have been listening and paying attention to them. But more important, the addition of reflecting the feelings that you observed and the values that have been confronted, helps that person to feel heard. It affirms their experience and makes it possible to sort out emotion, so that you can help them move forward.

What tools have helped you to listen authentically?

Anita Rios


What does authentic leadership mean?

“The point is not to become a leader. The point is to become yourself, and to use yourself completely – all your gifts, skills and energies – to make your vision manifest. You must withhold nothing. You must, in sum, become the person you started out to be, and to enjoy the process of becoming.”
— Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

thisIbelieveLooking for inspiration on authentic leadership, I visited the public radio web site, This I Believe. It includes over 125,000 essays in which people from all walks of life describe their core values. The quote above was mentioned several dozen times.

Why does that quote strike a nerve? It doesn’t say the things that you’d expect to hear in an essay about effective leadership. But somehow people find Bennis’ words inspiring when developing their own leadership style. Here are some reflections from their essays:

  • “I have been told that I am a natural leader and somebody to look up to. I have also been told if my heart is not in the goal, my leadership skills lack.”  (Jackson)
  • “There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve one’s skillset or work on an area that isn’t quite up to par. However, simply copying a successful leader isn’t leadership and it isn’t how those leaders got to where they are today.” (Gabriel)
  • “I do think that leaders often forget that they are ordinary people too, who also need constant guidance and seek for opportunities to learn.” (Murray)
  • “It is hard for a young, motivated individual to enjoy a process of becoming… If I use what I have learned so far in my life and have a positive attitude towards new ideas and different beliefs, I can be a more successful and effective leader.” (Elise)
  • “I am learning each day that it takes a strong person with a strong personality to become a leader. You have to hold fast in what you believe, but you also have to be able to let pride not get in the way.” (Rafeeq)
  • “To me, the best leaders are not sitting in an executive chair, or speaking in front of crowds. They are the people so dedicated to their cause that people can’t help to notice. This, I believe, is the leader I’m striving to become.” (Joshua)

Some of the  people who wrote these essays were formal leaders. Others were students or young professionals exploring what leadership means in their lives. But they all agreed that leadership involves more than a particular set of skills – it’s about how you show up. Livonia summarized authentic leadership well: “There is no easy road and no organized, detailed instruction guide that explains how you should become yourself; it is up to each of us to be who we really are and understand it in our efforts to become a leader.”

What does authentic leadership mean to you?

Dee Anne Bonebright

It isn’t always easy….

confrontation“How do I say this?” or, “Do I really have to say this?”  are two challenging questions we face when we need to talk straight and demonstrate concern as Anita described in her last post on the five touchstones of Authentic Leadership.

It is not easy for most of us to express ourselves authentically when it involves sharing tough messages with people close to us. Yet as Susan Scott describes in her book, Fierce Conversationsit is these specific interactions, the ones that require the most courage, that establish your credibility and authenticity. Luckily with practice and dedication we can get more comfortable initiating these “courageous conversations.”

Elise Chambers from the Conflict Resolution Center of Minnesota shared a seven- step protocol for courageous conversations at a conference I attended recently. It can help you speak candidly, listen respectfully and search for solutions, even in the most contentious situations.

  1. Prepare yourself – do your homework and clarify your intentions before you start.
  2. Create the needed space and time for the emotions and the importance the conversation requires – this clarifies expectations, creates transparency and facilitates two-way dialogue.
  3. Acknowledge the Four Agreements* – stay engaged, speak your truth, experience discomfort, and expect and accept non-closure.
  4. Focus on shared interests and a positive future outcome – the conversation is not about assigning blame.
  5. Work to discover possibilities in the shared interests – assume that there is a mystery to be embraced and a positive resolution ahead.
  6. Plan the action to take next – courageous conversations focus on outcomes and actions rather than identifying what not to do.
  7. Review and recap – take the time to clarify outcomes, acknowledge how difficult the conversation was, and highlight positive steps.

Leaders may not relish friction, but courageously and respectfully having the conversations that are needed demonstrates your ability to stay true to your values and get results – as an authentic leader.

Todd Thorsgaard

* Additional information can be found in the previous blog  Sparks before collaboration