“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Margery Williams,The Velveteen Rabbit
Authentic Leadership is not simply one of the many approaches that a leader can take based on their personality. In reality, authentic leadership is both a destination and an outcome of really hard work because the process of becoming real is not an easy one.
Take the lessons from the classic children’s book the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. This book starts out with a young stuffed rabbit who was a Christmas gift to a young boy. This sweet rabbit meets a wizened toy horse who lets the rabbit know about what it means to be a toy and about the process of becoming real, which is the result of loving hard and well. The poor little rabbit had no idea what this would mean to him as he became more than a playmate to his young charge but also a companion to the boy during his life threatening illness that eventually cost the rabbit his life.
The deep truths that are in this book can be applied to leadership as well. You don’t become an authentic leader simply because you are open and honest with what you think. It comes as a result of doing the hard work to refine your use and source of power and expression of love.
Every organizational challenge is an opportunity for new choices on how you handle the power that has been entrusted to you and how you show love to others. Power is one of the most frequently misunderstood terms in corporate life as it is always associated with its misuse. But the hero’s in our culture that inspire us are powerful – it is just that their power is sourced from within vs. from external symbols and status. And love is another misunderstood concept in that it is perceived to be about feelings. But real love is not about emotion; it is about actions that are really in the best interest of others over oneself.
Internalized power is why we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. every January as he is a supreme example of a personally powerful person who invested his talents towards the greatest expression of love. He was so effective as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement because he stood for what was right for all parties involved – not just for the African Americans. His strategies were to provoke white Americans to consider that racism was not in their best interest either.
If you strive for greater authenticity in your leadership, next time you are faced with a critical decision at work consider the following:
As we know from the Velveteen Rabbit, becoming real requires sacrifice. But we also know that as a result, something supremely greater is on the other side.
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