Advice to a New Leader

Growing Into Authentic Selfhood

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”
― Parker J. Palmer, Now I Become Myself

A few days ago my phone lit up. As I glanced at it, I was happy and surprised to see the message. It was from a former resident who had graduated about seven years ago, went on to sub-specialize, and is now going to be appointed as program director in her institution.

As I read the message informing me of her wonderful accomplishment, I was so proud and happy. My face had a big smile as I continued to read as her message. She acknowledged her anxiety and fear and ended by requesting to speak with me for advice on how to be a good and effective program director.

While her request touched me, it really gave me a lot to think about. What advice do I give to a young, enthusiastic, accomplished, intelligent, gifted faculty who is an underrepresented minority, a female, a wonderful single mother, and a beautiful giving person?

Having been in touch with her since her graduation, I knew that this new role was one of her dreams come true—her hope, her goal. In fact, we had just spoken about six weeks ago and she had shared that this job was a possibility and we talked about her intentions.

What would be my advice? Do I advise her from my own experience as a friend, as a mother, as a colleague, as a former program director, or as a leader? Or more importantly, just as one caring human being to another human being?

Oh here again is the “multiple hats syndrome” we all suffer from! When we avoid integrating the many roles in our lives, it’s like wearing too many hats until the weight of them all obscures our vision and damages our health. We do not thrive; we do not feel connected to that intrinsic motivation or the purpose that brought us our vocation to start with.

Each of us comes to work wanting to do the right thing, function at our best and be part of the service of promoting healing, learning  and contributing, making a difference, fulfilling our purpose. While this is impacted by our personal mindset— how we bring ourselves to work and our personal motivations—so much also depends on what we are dealt with at work and our work environment.

Not only should we not compartmentalize the roles we have, we cannot and should not compartmentalize who we are, meaning our true selves and how we show up or are visible! When all our roles are integrated, then we can work at our best, because that is when we are engaged as our whole selves. Being engaged and whole provides meaning and joy to us and to our team.

I truly believe that understanding wholeness is the fundamental work of a leader. In addition to being visible, positive in all their behavior and norms, promote collaborative engagement which is pertinent and individualized, not a one size fits all; support for learning and innovation; transparency; and valuing people for who they are and the impact they have. Leaders need to be authentic, someone who can be trusted.

What do I mean by that? Leaders need to allow themselves and all their team members to show up authentically with all their positive attributes, but also with their fears and vulnerabilities. That can only happen if leaders create a work environment or culture that is a safe brave space. Then, and only then, can all team members thrive and grow and co-create the reality where everyone is allowed to work toward their passion for the overall benefit including the mission work they want to serve. 

Leaders can also take simple actions, like being visible in mind and body, and asking with genuine care: How are you doing? Do you feel like you have everything you need to fulfill your goals? How can I help?

When leaders invite all team members (and themselves) to integrate one’s personal attributes with the external work environment, it can result in high-functioning teams and a culture of joy, meaning, thriving, and well-being.

When we show up with authenticity, with our humanness, we build stronger relationships, connections, and a community around our commonUnity!

All these thoughts are what I want to tell my former student as she steps into her new role as program director. But more importantly, I want to make sure I tell her and remind her often of these five points: 

  1. Be kind to yourself.

  2. Surround yourself with people who accept you for who you are.

  3. It’s okay to be vulnerable rather than pretend.

  4. I am here for you!

  5. And, of course, always have “Happy Thoughts!”

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”
― Parker J. Palmer, Now I Become Myself

#REFLECT: When is a time you felt invited to show up with authenticity and wholeness? When have you invited others to do that too?

P.S. I’d like to share an article that was posted today on the University of Tennessee blog, about a study I’m beginning with Dr. Chris Cunningham that will ask How to Maintain Motivation and a Sense of Meaning. Our aim is to shine a light on the other end of the burnout spectrum, asking why some people do NOT burnout.