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Leadership Is Born From the Courage to Be Yourself: Steve Boehlke on the Power of Authenticity

Steve Boehlke has worked for some 40 years with youth and top corporate executives around the world to inspire integrity and authenticity in leadership. As an accomplished consultant, facilitator and speaker, his professional journey has taken him from youth minister, founder of a non-profit organization, and Assistant Dean of Students at Princeton University to establishing a successful global leadership development consulting practice, SFB Associates. He has served for the past 11 years as a Senior Advisor to the African Leadership Group and is passionate about working with young leaders on the continent.

Steve’s gift for enabling people to develop leadership capabilities through a greater awareness of themselves and their world is unparalleled. He shared with us some vital lessons on authenticity, fear, and why we shouldn’t necessarily try to emulate leaders we admire.

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“Having the courage to be seen and to be authentic has to come from the heart; you can’t fake it. This has everything to do with self-awareness. If a person is unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to grow in their self-awareness, I don’t think they can be developed as a leader.”

Going back to your roots, how did your childhood shape the person you are today?

Three things come to mind. The first is that I was a very curious child; I read a lot and that fed my curiosity. I grew up in quite a dogmatic conservative religious family, where asking too many questions made people uncomfortable — so I always had more questions than what others could handle! This sense of curiosity continues to shape much of my work and who I am. It’s led me to understand that leadership is about being willing to ask the difficult questions, for which there may be no obvious or immediate answers. My consulting practice is largely framed around principles related to skillful inquiry because I’ve found that through a deeper process of inquiry and dialogue, you can build teams and forge communities.

Being the son of a Protestant minister also shaped the person I am — particularly in that I don’t like to be preached at! I think this enabled me to develop masterful facilitation skills as I want to explore and discover and learn with you. I don’t want to preach at you.

Lastly, I was fortunate to grow up in a household where I felt loved, and affirming love is vitally essential, which happens to be the acronym for ‘alive’. If someone’s going to feel fully alive, they need to feel loved.

When did you realise that you had leadership potential?

I’m the eldest son of four children, so I was held up as an example to my siblings. By the time I got to high school, I noticed that people would often seek me out. For whatever reason, they trusted me and wanted to hang out with me. I had leadership roles all the way through high school, which signaled to me that I could reach further. The biggest reach was applying to an Ivy League University. When I was accepted at Princeton, that was a substantial affirmation that there was more to me than what my environment was able to call forth. And I was more than ready to expand, if not explode, into that new world.

What made you want to devote your life to developing leadership abilities in others?

I became a Presbyterian youth minister at an early point in my life, and I actually learned some of my best skills working with kids — there are a lot of similarities between the resistance of cool teenagers and that of senior executives when it comes to doing anything substantive! Working with top executives was out of my comfort zone at first, but it soon became clear that there was much I could apply to the corporate sector. The tipping point came a few years into my leadership development practice. I was working with the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, and I told him that if he were to ask openly for help, that would signal to me that he was growing and developing as a leader. I can still remember vividly the moment when this man, with a bit of emotion in his voice, asked for help in a meeting with his executive team. That was at least one occasion when I realized the impact that I could have.

Ultimately, my life’s work is centered on the belief that everybody has more potential than they realize, and I want to help to call forth that potential.

The core of your message is that leadership is born from the courage to be fully and authentically yourself. Can you expand on this?

Authenticity means to be yourself, which is a tricky thing because we actually have many selves. A coaching exercise that I do involves sharing specific personal stepping-stones, exploring what has brought you to this point in your journey. Every time you do it, there’s going to be a slightly different story. This doesn’t mean that one is right and the other is wrong. It simply means that we have many selves, so authenticity is about knowing those selves and being true to ourselves at any given point in time.

Having the courage to be seen and to be authentic has to come from the heart; you can’t fake it. This has everything to do with self-awareness. If a person is unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to grow in their self-awareness, I don’t think they can be developed as a leader. The reason could be rooted in trauma or early childhood experiences. Regardless, it’s very hard to be authentic if there’s not some measure of self-awareness.

What would you say is the biggest inhibitor of authenticity?

I think what keeps people from being authentic is a fear of rejection. And related to this is shame. I actually wrote a monograph on shame and I happened to share it with a client once. He said that it was the first time anyone had spoken to him about shame or invited him to reflect on it, and he proceeded to tell me things that had been weighing on him. This is a crucial conversation to have, because shame is the ugly stepsister of failure. We always talk about the need to risk failure in order to innovate, but how can we do this if we can’t talk about shame? Fear of failure is related to not wanting to experience shame.

Are all true leaders authentic?

Authenticity is essential to leadership, but there’s no question that there are powerful leaders who are not authentic. They know how to exercise power, yet they’re limited in their effectiveness as leaders because they lack self-awareness. They’re ruled by fear and they project their fears onto the fears of others; stirring and motivating people out of fear, rather than out of possibilities and hope. I’m fairly well convinced that what the United States is dealing with these days is a polarization driven largely by fear.

From all my years of leadership development, however, I know that if somebody is true to themselves, other people tend to notice. We’re drawn to people who are authentic, those who are well-aligned with their essence or their inner being.

Who are the leaders that you admire the most?

I’m very cautious at this point in my life about wanting to emulate or model myself after another leader. I don’t think anyone should necessarily aim to be like Steve Jobs or Nelson Mandela or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I mean, they’re incredible people, but it’s more important to be authentic and to grow in your sense of self — be the leader you are meant to be! Having said that, of course there are leaders that I admire — people like Michelle and Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Yuval Noah Harari and Brené Brown.

That would make for an epic dinner party!

Oh yes! I’d also like to mention a leader whom you probably haven’t heard of before — a young man named Francis Odhiambo. He was raised in Kibera, the largest slum of Kenya, and has overcome massive hardships, but he’s anchored in something bigger and greater than himself, and he’s living out his passion. He’s a dancer with a mission of improving the lives of children through dance education, teaching them life skills creatively in a safe and free space. Through his organization, ChezaCheza, he’s been able to expand his work to schools and hubs throughout the community. I met him at a conference a year ago in Nairobi; I have admired his growth and influence ever since. He’s a remarkable leader!

We are living through a time of unprecedented flux and uncertainty. What are some of the lessons you’ve drawn from the global crisis?

Despite the systemic inequities and social injustices apparent throughout the world, the most powerful lesson is that we’re all truly in this together. I’ve never known anything else in my lifetime that’s such a levelling experience. I don’t care what corner of the world you’re in, you’re having to figure out how to survive the risks of Covid. I also think we’re being pushed to ask questions of our essence. Who am I really, when I’m not getting on a plane and flying someplace? Or when I don’t have a client sitting across the table from me? I see it as an invitation to be less of a human doing and more of a human being. People are suffering through sadness, grief, depression, loneliness; if we can cut through that and be there for one another, develop empathy for each other, that makes all the difference.

And finally, I think we’re being called as leaders to develop a non-anxious presence — to find out what calms us and what centers us amidst the uncertainty. What allows us to hold these tensions and contradictions? There’s a quote that I love: “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” Many of us are feeling insecurity and anxiety right now, yet if we can’t somehow transform it, we’re going to end up transmitting it. As leaders, we need to find a means to be present and centered, whatever the crisis or trauma or terror might be.

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