The Roots of Leadership

CornLast night, three generations of my family gathered to “work the sweet corn”. For the uninformed among you, that means picking, shucking, silking, cutting, cooking, and packaging ridiculous amounts of corn for freezing. As I was elbow deep in this family ritual, with my sister taking the annual picture of the crew at the shucking table, I couldn’t help but think about a Harvard Business Review article on Discovering Your Authentic Leadership. (Call me weird, it’s just the way my brain works, but if you stick with me there really is a connection!)

In the article ( Bill George and his co-authors noted that more than 1,000 studies have failed to produce a clear profile of the ideal leader. Rather, in their review of the studies, the authors identified the consistent thread among successful leaders was that “their leadership emerged from their life stories. Consciously and subconsciously, they were constantly testing themselves through real-world experiences and reframing their life stories to understand who they were at their core . . . the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life.”

Successful leaders can be shaped by positive and/or difficult situations, but the common theme is that they use their life experiences to give them meaning and discover their passion. So what does that mean for you and me? Well for one thing, it means that you can’t lead just like someone else. You might be able to model some aspects of your leadership on an individual you admire, but you can’t “wear” their exact style, and if you try, you will never reach your full potential as a leader.

I am the product of a close-knit rural family. Next week, you will find me at the county fair, where I will forever be one of the “Duncan Girls”, even though my last name has been Reed for nearly 30 years. Those things, along with a host of other experiences, have shaped who I am and how I lead. As noted previously in this post, in my first professional job after college I tried to be a Debra. I can’t pull it off. That level of formality is simply not authentic to who I am. I have great respect for people who are genuinely more formal, it’s just not me.

The good news is, according to the research there is no one “right way” to lead, so you might as well do it your way. Yes, you still need to learn and grow and stretch yourself, but the next time you read a leadership book, make note of the things that resonate with you, and give yourself permission to discard the pieces that don’t feel like a fit.

I make a conscious effort to stay connected to the people and values that helped shape me, and I believe I’m a better leader because of it. Not only that . . . I know how to make some killer freezer corn!