No two leaders are exactly alike, and authenticity — recognizing and acting from your own strengths and values — is key to success in a leadership position. To become an authentic leader, you need to ignore one-size-fits-all advice that doesn’t suit your personality and skills. Instead, seek to improve your self-awareness. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What experiences have shaped you? What is your unique impact on others?
Kellogg School of Management students address these fundamental questions and more in Personal Leadership Insights, a course taught by several faculty members including Ellen Taaffe ’97 MBA, clinical assistant professor of management and organizations and director of women’s leadership programming. The course, developed by a team of professors and coaches led by Brenda Ellington Booth ’98 PhD, clinical professor of management and operations, uses classroom content, small-group discussions and one-on-one coaching to help students complete powerful — and sometimes uncomfortable — leadership exercises to understand where they’ve been and determine where they’re going in their careers and in life.
Here, Taaffe highlights four questions that leaders can ask themselves to gain insight into the experiences that have shaped them and their opportunities for growth, along with exercises that offer a deeper dive into each topic.
Who are you today?
In class, we do a looking-back exercise to examine what happened in your life and identify the themes that have made you who you are today. I don’t give students any exercise that I don’t do alongside them, so I share an example of having financial ups and downs in my childhood and teenage years that made me ambitious and hardworking but also more risk averse early in my career.
At the same time, I came from an incredibly loving household with parents who thought I could do anything I set my mind to. That combination made me a leader who doesn’t want surprises but believes we can make our goals happen. It connects to my “calm in the storm” persona, crisis management skills and strength as a leader who engages others in a strategic vision yet plans for contingencies.
The looking-back exercise reinforces that sharing and being vulnerable can create an amazing community and help you bond with your team. Students take away that everyone has a story as they recognize that their brilliant classmates all faced more challenges than they realized. It also can help you develop stories from your life to illustrate a point you want to make or a characteristic you want to be known for.
It’s also important to understand your own needs, which many people forget to consider. Needs are often invisible until they’re unmet. For example, if you become aware that you need recognition, and you can articulate that, you can help your boss manage you by knowing what motivates you.
How do others know and see you?
As part of developing self-awareness, you also want to come to understand how others perceive you. After you’ve done the looking-back, strengths, values, and needs exercises, you get feedback from people who truly know you in different parts of your life. Organizational psychologist and author Dr. Tasha Eurich recommends identifying these “loving critics” who care enough to be candid with you. This helps you identify what you are known for, reveal your blind spots or surface untapped potential. Does their feedback match the work you’ve just done on reflecting about who you are? Are there gaps you want to close? Do people see you the way you want to see yourself?
Many people recognize through the class exercises that they want to become better listeners. They learn to set intentions — for example to focus and avoid assuming we know what the other person will say. As they prepare for feedback, they learn how powerful questions can help them turn vague feedback into meaningful input.
Students sometimes realize from the feedback they receive that they have an old tape playing in their head, and they’re overcorrecting for something that is no longer an issue. Or they might discover that they want to show more of a strength that they know they possess but others haven’t seen yet.
Who do you want to be?
Set a vision that can be a source of clarity about what you aspire to accomplish. Leadership expert Rosabeth Moss Kanter at Harvard says, “A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.”
To develop your vision, imagine an article about you that is published 20 years from now. Sit down and write that article in detail, explaining what you have accomplished during that time. What impact do you want to have had? What and who do you want to be present in your life?
Students will read their vision to the class or share images that inspire them. They describe what they hope will have happened in their career, or they might have a vision of a family or a house or a place they want to be.
Your vision is personal to you. It can — and should — evolve over time. Revisit it periodically and update it as you continue to grow and change.
How do you want to get there?
After you detail your vision, the next step is to create an action plan for the next 90 or 120 days. What can you do in the short term to move yourself toward that vision? If you’re going through a transition, such as getting a promotion or starting a new job, this can be a good time to design how you want to tackle the first few months or to develop new habits.
Or you might begin to incorporate practices such as a “leadership pause,” which is a short meditation we do in class that encourages focus and presence. We talk about taking little acts of courage, such as trusting that your relationships are strong enough to withstand you setting a boundary or saying “no.” Small practices can lead to a big shift in one’s ease and comfort in facing conflict.
When you document a vision and create a development plan, you significantly increase your commitment and the likelihood that you will follow through. It’s true that life will have its own twists and turns; I include in class a map of what I call my “non-LinkedIn journey,” overlaying a timeline of my career ups and downs over time along with other aspects of my life — such as losing a parent or having my two daughters — which at times made me adjust my priorities and goals. Still, you’ll get further down the road if you have an intention around your destination.
At the end of the class, the students acknowledge each other — describing the strengths they see in one another, outlining the kind of leader they envision each person being and conveying a wish for each person’s future. It’s a rare form of feedback, and you can carry it into the workplace. If you can help your people be seen for who they are and all the good things they’re doing and explain the skills they need to develop, you’re going to be a powerful leader.