Authentic Leadership

I’ve spent my entire career in higher education, primarily as a faculty member and mid-level administrator. Ambitious since I left my mother’s womb, I knew I was drawn to executive level leadership.  Throughout my tenure in academia, I grew more and more convinced I would not be selected for c-suite leadership because of one thing: my honesty. My approach to working with people seemed so entirely different to all the examples I had witnessed. Top leadership most often seemed hidden, secretive, and certainly not wearing their hearts on their sleeve as I do. I feared there wasn’t a place for my style which emphasized relationship building, transparency, and authenticity.

I was steadfast in my belief that I could only be myself and I interviewed demonstrating this.  To my astonishment, one (very smart) president gave me an opportunity to live my dream of serving as a provost. One of the countless strategies and tactics I employed when I began was to send a weekly message, often with a motivational bent, to my extended team.  The messages typically came from a personal space and included quite a bit about me alongside some academic theme.  They appeared to be well received and I would often receive responses from staff sharing their opinions and insights. As the years progressed, I slowly began to send fewer of these messages. I felt I had established a very strong relationship with my team and wanted to save them from reading one more email.

Recently at a monthly team meeting, my aim was to get the pulse of my team.  I had read an article about the “iceberg effect” which essentially states that as you move up in an organization, you know less and less what is happening with the people doing the work. We engaged in a discussion about things that were working, things that weren’t working, what we should continue to do, and what we should stop or change doing. To my surprise, the team asked that I bring back the messages indicating that they were often inspired by them and appreciated knowing the types of things I was thinking about as the chief academic officer and learning more about me as a person. 

I have taken part in countless leadership training courses and yes, many of them speak about authentic leadership. However, what I experienced didn’t match those trainings. Furthermore, as a female leader, an authentic approach (I had been told) can be perceived as weakness rather than authenticity. How ironic is it that what I thought would always hold me back from executive leadership was how I shared so much about myself and my opinions, and this was the one thing my team specifically asked for more of.

I will always be myself, for better or for worse. Sometimes this may put me at a disadvantage in the professional domain. But I couldn’t live with myself any other way.  Fortunately for me, my team feels the same.

Below is an excerpt of the message I shared with my team this week after resurrecting these messages.

I can’t lie that it has been a difficult summer and a difficult start to the school year, so this message may not be the happy beginning to the week some of you hoped for.

A book I’m reading right now, The Absent Moon: A Memoir of a Short Childhood and a Long Depression, centers on one man’s journey with bipolar disorder. At the heart of the memoir is a story of survival and hope. While the past months have been challenging for my family, I am supremely confident ours will too be a story of hope.

As many of you know, in April, my best friend was killed by her husband the day before their divorce was finalized. Her parents are best friends with my parents. Her children are best friends with my children. The ups and downs have been tremendous. And in fact, your Monday message today is in part reflective of the fact that I can’t send a Friday message because I will be in court again for the plea hearing. Likely because of this trauma, my son’s anxiety has shot through the roof and the start of the school year has been terrifying to him.

When we come to work, we bring our whole selves. The good, bad, and ugly. I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in recognizing this. We work at a very special place, one I’ve not frequently encountered, where there is an abundance of collegiality, kindness, support, and earnest caring. I feel so blessed to be able to genuinely say that.  What we do matters but often overlooked is the importance of how we go about doing it. We will dive into this more at our summit with an interactive workshop on email communications. I can’t wait to be with all of you in person and until then, thank you from the bottom of my heart for making academic affairs and the College such a blessed place to work.

 Amy Rell, Provost for the College for Financial Planning 

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