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Developing Authentic Leadership: The True North Plan

Wednesday, April 13, 2011
As part of a leadership class I'm taking right now at Creighton for my MBA, our primary assignment is to read a book called True North by Bill George.  Then at the end of each chapter we have to answer a bunch of questions to help us reflect and apply the chapter's content to our own lives.  In an attempt to get myself motivated to complete this assignment, I thought I'd share some of the quotes from the book that inspired me, and post my answers to the questions on this blog.  Yes, I know probably some of you won't be interested in reading my homework assignment, but I thought the book was very insightful and I think everyone can benefit from learning about how to be a more authentic person and leader.  Also, hopefully maybe you'll get to know me a little better from my responses.  I'm not going to lie.  This question and answer format sort of reminds me of a celebrity interview in a pop culture magazine.  Kind of fun, huh?   :)  Let me know what you guys think.  If you enjoy reading this than maybe every few days I'll plan on posting another chapter's highlights and my answers to the questions.

So here we go... this is my mostly plagiarized and somewhat paraphrased words from the Introduction of Bill George's book, True North.  I've rearranged some of the sentences a bit to try to grab the sections of this chapter that stuck out to me most:

"Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life.  When you follow your internal compass, your leadership will be authentic, and people will naturally want to associate with you.  Although others may guide or influence you, your truth is derived from your life story, and only you can determine what it should be.  Discovering your True North takes a lifetime of commitment and learning.

Becoming an authentic leader is not easy.  First, you have to understand yourself, because the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.  Rather than waiting to get to the top to become a leader, look for every opportunity to lead and develop yourself.  When considering whether to step up and lead authentically, ask yourself these two questions:  If not me, then who?  In not now, then when?"

What leaders past or present do you admire most?  What is it about them that you admire?  Which of these leaders do you consider to be authentic leaders?  What can you learn from their leadership?

There are many leaders that I admire.  Some of the obvious ones come to mind.  Martin Luther King.  Nelson Mandela.  But if I think harder about some of the leaders that have had a more profound and direct impact on my life personally, the first person I think of is Karen.  She was my one of my first supervisors during my first real job after college.  She was only my supervisor for four months (the length of a single audit), but her impact was profound.

My first few months working in corporate America left me feeling dissolutioned.  I had spent two and a half years vigorously working my way through my bachelor's degree in Finance and came out so excited for the next chapter in my life.  Instead of the excitement, stimulation, glamour, and intellectual growth that I had expected, I experienced a cubicle, a boring assignment, and a supervisor that was even more bored than I was.  After two months of drudgery I nearly stopped working entirely and spent all my time surfing the internet and planning my escape (minimizing my screen quickly anytime someone walked by... I got really good at this.  I even seriously considered buying this device.  Desperate times).  I was 19 with a bachelors degree, in a highly sought after job, but I felt stuck.  This was no way to begin the rest of my life. 

So I made my escape plan.  I planned to move to England, then New Zealand, then maybe Australia.  I got a 6-month working visa in England for the first leg of my trip.  I told my boss I was going to quit.  But before I got the chance to officially leave the company, I had finalized my first audit and moved onto a new audit with a new supervisor.  My second supervisor was Karen.  Karen had been with Union Pacific for less than two years herself.  I was her only direct report and we were responsible for auditing two subsidiary companies.  As the newbie on the team I was assigned one of the worst jobs: account reconciliations.  Reviewing debits and credits for five balance sheet accounts.  I like numbers, but it's hard for even me to get excited about accounts receivables.  I was already planning on quitting, and was assigned a terrible assignment.  But Karen was so excited, passionate, flexible, and determined that she brought a flicker of light came into my boring corporate existence.  She encouraged me to work hard.  She was tough on me, but praised me when I was successful.  She listened to my ideas.  She brainstormed with me.  She made me feel like I had something unique to offer. 

Toward the end of the audit I found an accounting error with one of the subsidiary's accounting systems that caused several customers to never have been billed for their services.  The error I identified was more than my first years salary.  I never would have found the error without her encouragement and leadership.  For the first time, I felt like my work made an impact.

What I learned from this experience is that leadership makes a huge difference.  From my first audit to my second audit I was in the same cubicle, at the same company, doing the same job.  The only difference was Karen.  It's incredible what a huge difference a boss can make in a person's satisfaction, engagement, motivation, and even happiness.  Ultimately, I ended up enjoying my job so much, and I had some things happen in my personal life (like my mom getting pregnant!) that running away to Europe seemed less appealing than it was before.  I un-quit my job.  (Thanks again Jim for letting me do that), and today I've been working for this company for four years.  Best of all, I truly, truly enjoy it.  Karen no longer works for the same company, and I have no way to get in touch with her, but I still can't help but want reach out and sincerely thank her for her leadership. 

Thinking back to all your leadership experiences in your lifetime, which ones are you proudest of?

I am most proud of my leadership experience during my second year on the audit staff.  This was the first time I had a team of my own to lead.  Rather than reviewing the last audit performed on this department, and personally dictating what we would do and how we would do it (which was common practice), I got my whole team into a room and we brainstormed.  It was amazing what a difference that made in the ideas and direction we had for the project - much better than I could have ever come up with on my own. 

At the end of the audit, when I gave performance evaluations to those on my team I tried very, very hard to give genuine, specific, and candid feedback on the areas where they did well and the areas they could improve, even when it was uncomfortable.  At the end of the evaluations, two of the members of my team told me that they felt like I cared about their development (which I really did) and that they appreciated how seriously I took my feedback.  They said I was the best supervisor they'd had.  Not all my leadership experiences have been triumphs, far from it.  But this one was a success and I hope to have more moments like this. 

What qualities do you bring to leadership?  What leadership qualities would you like to develop further? 

I think the most important quality that I bring to leadership is passion. I get genuinely excited about ideas and making positive change.  The qualities I would like to develop further are sensitivity and perceptiveness to others. 

Assess yourself against the five dimensions of authentic leadership:  Do you understand your purpose?  Do you practice your values?  Do you lead with your heart?  Do you establish connected relationships?  Do you demonstrate self discipline? 

If I had to give myself an honest performance review of these five dimensions, here's how I would rank myself: 

Lead with my heart:  Significantly exceeds expectations
Practice my values:  Exceeds expectations
Understand my purpose:  Meets expectations
Demonstrate self discipline: Does not meet expectations
Establishes connected relationships:  Does not meet expectations

Do you feel you are more effective as a leader when you are authentic, or does being authentic constrain your leadership effectiveness?

I whole heartedly believe that the more authentic you are the more effective you are as a leader.

Are you consciously developing your leadership abilities at this time?

I have been purposely developing my leadership skills for the past 3 years now (with various levels of focus).  I regret not starting this earlier.  I could have been cultivating these skills years and years ago. But, better a little late than never :)

That's it.  Have you guys read any business books or other books that have helped you develop?  Any recommendations?  Thoughts?  Questions?

Thanks for reading.


Steph said...


This is great! I know you are/will be such a great leader! I definitely remember when you were thinking of quitting-- we were both itching to get out of here!

Just wondering, what would you have done to develop your leadership skills earlier? I think I might need more experience before I get to grad school so I have more to reflect on.

Also, a leadership book I reccomend is Endurance. It's about Edward Shackleton's Antarctic expedition in the early 1900's and I think its a really interesting example of great leadership.

Keep the homework assignments coming! I like 'em! Love ya!

Mom said...

Awesome Amanda. I always love reading your blog! One recommendation though - take the bricks off, it is distracting while reading. :) luv ya

Amanda said...

You don't like the bricks? :) Reminds me of Kevin and I's condo. I want to have Chris re-design my blog. The websites he made for school were so awesome. Love ya!

Amanda said...

Thanks Steph! I think your question is more than I can type up in a comment, but to answer part of it quickly, I don't think it's too early to start your MBA. Or at least get your GMAT knocked out. Your GMAT scores are good for five years and I'd recommend starting your MBA sometime in the next five years if you think it's something you want to do. I think there's a sweet spot between waiting long enough to get some good "real world" experience and waiting too long after you're completely out of the school zone. No matter what you decide to start, I think you'll do great.

I'm going to check out that book. Thanks for the recommendation. Lv ya!

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