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  • Sarah Holliman

Organizational Transformation Begins With You

You don't need a title to be a leader, but you do need to believe in your own evolution. With slight modifications, this blog, originally published on, discusses the mindsets in your past and how they are constraining your leadership potential.

“Fake it ‘til you make it.” This unattributed idiom (with a nod to Aristotle) is oft-used advice to people early in their careers. But how wise is it to follow? How many people have résumés that truly portray their strengths vs. a laundry list of what they want you to believe about their abilities? How confident would any shareholder be if they believed the CEO got to the top by faking their skills rather than building them? But more importantly, is it a person’s skills that give you confidence in their leadership abilities?

If you think about the last person who truly inspired you, was it their title…or the last three companies where they worked that piqued your interest? Was it their ability to run a shareholders’ meeting, analyze volumes of data and manage their exceedingly crowded schedule that excited you? Doubt it. When you think of someone who is truly motivational, you are usually moved by the things that don’t make it on to the résumé: their heart, integrity, authenticity and ability to enroll others in their beliefs and passions. It’s not because of their title.

It's About Mindset

Too often, CEOs have the mindset that what has gotten them here will get them there. If they have successfully led profitable companies, why would they have any reason to believe they need to evolve? When things aren’t working, it doesn’t take much convincing that something has to change. But when they are…CEOs often don’t understand the need. They have the pedigree and the track record – and past accomplishments are a good indicator of future success – so why fix what isn’t broken?

Truth be told, most organizations will continue to function regardless of (and perhaps in spite of) the CEO’s leadership style…but those leaders who hold on to their past beliefs and mindsets are fundamentally closing themselves off from a world of possibilities. The past can be a straitjacket – it is confining. Those leaders who make concerted attempts to understand how their past is undermining and determining their future will get a sense of clarity that can lead to personal breakthroughs and organizational transformations. Only when leaders have that clarity can they begin to truly unlock the wisdom, innovation and expertise inherent in themselves, their companies and their employees.

Looking Within Brings Immense Rewards

Transforming an organization is no small undertaking. It can take years to see massive change, especially without stakeholder support, which is critical. Anyone who has implemented a major change initiative in a large company knows how important it is to have internal buy-in. Now imagine that the change is coming from the top – and that the leaders implementing the change are transforming themselves as well and leading by example. You can bet that the change will be felt throughout the company…and if authentic and genuine, will actually change the culture.

"The past can be a straitjacket – it is confining. Those leaders who make concerted attempts to understand how their past is undermining and determining their future will get a sense of clarity that can lead to personal breakthroughs and organizational transformations."

Personal transformation requires that we look within…and let’s face it, that is a scary thing to do. We spend years casting blame, telling ourselves stories and living a life that is confined by our past. Yet to move forward, we have to make ourselves vulnerable and challenge our own assumptions. At Singularity University’s 2017 Summit, David Roberts, award-winning CEO and serial entrepreneur shared the idea that authentic (or in his words “exponential”) leaders have a butterfly effect—they change people by changing themselves. Authentic leaders build trust in an organization by acknowledging and understanding their own shortcomings and holding themselves accountable before asking others to be. They lead by example and show their heart in the process, and they expect their direct reports to do the same.

Authentic Leaders Have a Heart

If “running a tight ship” through conventional tactics – cutting costs, increasing revenues, hiring and even firing people, analyzing data and laying people off when necessary – has worked for decades, what does a leader have to gain by changing? Consider Herb Kelleher. He co-founded Southwest Airlines and for the past 45 straight years (30 under Kelleher’s leadership) the company has been profitable. I’d say that’s a pretty good track record.

But it’s not the airline’s profitability that keeps people coming back. Inarguably, it is the culture. It’s the heart. On every flight, the personality of the company is obvious. On some flights, you will hear employees sing; on others, their delivery of important messages is so comedically timed that the passengers actually listen, and often even break out in applause. Why? Because Southwest employees know how to connect with their customers – they have fun and enjoy what they do – and that started from the top.

Herb Kelleher’s leadership style, while wacky and uncommon, was infectious. He never took himself too seriously. He was known to arm wrestle rather than negotiate, never gave himself a raise or bonus and he fought bureaucracy. But his biggest corporate secret was no secret at all – he valued his people and practiced what he preached. Kelleher recognized the importance of his employees and treated them with respect and honor. And because of that, he developed trust. People follow leaders they respect who are fundamentally connected with themselves and with others, who lead with their heart, have clarity and confidence, and instill the same in their people. What can be better for unlocking potential?

According to Bill George, former Medtronic CEO, Harvard Business School Professor and author, authentic leaders create significantly more shareholder value than leaders who are focused on financial results. Herb Kelleher has proven that in spades. Not only was the company profitable during his tenure, but the legacy lives on. Southwest Airlines – in one of the most competitive industries imaginable – has remained financially successful, never laid off a single employee and continued their history of innovation and industry leadership.

To Thine Own Self Be True

While the pretext of this article was organizational transformation that starts at the top, the fact of the matter is that you don’t need a title to benefit from this advice. Take a look under your own hood. What skeletons in your past are confining you? How can you reach your true potential and inspire others to do the same? Self-awareness is the key. Start by looking within to achieve the personal breakthroughs and transformations that are only possible when you do.

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