Finding Authenticity as a New Leader

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“the hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.”
― Bill George, Discover Your True North


As Parks and Recreation Professionals…

many of us are in leadership roles where we have the great responsibility of managing people. Beyond excellent communication and organization skills, there’s another skill that you need in your tool belt.  That trait is authenticity, and that’s the topic I’d like to explore today.

Authenticity seems straight-forward, and at it’s core, simply means genuine, bona fide, and true.  However, if you have over had a leader that wasn’t authentic – who didn’t come across as “real” – then you know the importance of this characteristic in the workplace.  This is the story of my journey to discover what authenticity meant in my role as a new supervisor in parks and recreation.


After two long months of applying…

interviewing, and waiting, I finally heard the news: I got the promotion!  In competition with most of my qualified coworkers for this role, I somehow managed to be selected.  But instead of feeling overjoyed, I felt a knot in my stomach as the realization came in that I was not entirely prepared for my duties.

The responsibility was overwhelming.  Not only would I be on-call for emergencies, but I would also be expected to know how to handle many different types of difficult situations.  I needed to be able to manage and coach my staff through conflicts, many of which I had never experienced before.  I would need to be an expert in (our registration system), in addition to taking on another load of technical and time-consuming responsibilities like payroll, financial uploads, and deposits.

And finally, as if that wasn’t enough, I would need to be a supervisor to 6 standard staff, many of whom were either older or more experienced.   A few of them were even my friends before I had stepped into my role.  Should I act as if I know what I’m doing?  Fake it till I make it?


As a sat in my new office with this fear radiating inside me…

I remembered a quote from one of my favorite actors & people in the world, Amy Poehler.  “Great people do things before they are ready.”  And since I wasn’t ready, I decided that this must mean that I destined to be great, right?

Amy Poehler Quote: Great People Do Things Before They Are Ready


I also heeded the advice of Marie Forleo, a generational thought leader who lives by the idea that “Everything is Figureoutable.”  Meaning, if you are smart, and you know where to look, you can figure out just about anything.

These two quotes were relief to me as I stumbled through the first few months of the job.  The technical side of things wasn’t nearly as much of a challenge as I thought it would be.   I learned I’m pretty adaptable and can pick up tech skills quickly.  I used the power of evernote to write down instructions, create email templates, and store all of the meeting notes.  It was my lifesaver as I was expected to soak up (and remember) as much information as possible.


But the whole “people” side of things…

the side that I knew was most important – that’s what made me lose sleep at night.  I couldn’t help but wonder if I was showing up as a leader.  I knew that presence contributed to their perception of me, so I tried a number of techniques to show up professionally.  Amy Cuddy has an excellent TED Talk about how your body language shapes who you are and how you are perceived.

I heeded her advice closely, and found myself (somewhat embarrassingly) doing power poses in the bathroom before my coaching meetings.  The idea here was not to “Fake it till you make it,” but rather “Fake it until you become it.”  I liked that approach.  It helped me gain confidence in those intimidating moments.

Fake it Until You Become It - Amy Cuddy Quote

As I continued to focus on showing up professionally, I also had the responsibility of making sure that all of the day-to-day responsibilities were being accomplished.  Giving direction and assigning tasks to my staff seemed daunting at first.  How do I tell them what to do in a way that doesn’t damage our relationship?  I knew that when someone told me what to do, I generally didn’t feel invested to do it.  But if someone asked me, then I felt as if it was an opportunity to take on something new.  I anticipated I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Deep inside, I just wanted there to be open communication between us, and the idea that I would “boss them around” (no pun intended) seemed counterintuitive to that value.  That is, until I discovered that simply ASKING them was actually a really polite way of gaining buy-in from them.  After all, if they hear the offer, they have to reply.  By replying, they are agreeing to complete that task – which gives them the power and control to make it happen.  I know it seems simple – asking rather than telling – but more and more evidence shows that this simple method builds trust within workplaces.

I also saw the unexpected impact of casual conversation with my staff.

When I spent time talking to my staff as a human being first – asking about their kids, their goals, their classes – they in turn treated me as a human too.  When I made mistakes, they became incredibly forgiving.   Giving them feedback and delegating tasks to them became easier as this relationship grew overtime.  I started to become very open and honest with them – letting them know when I was unsure about a particular transaction, or the next step in the process.

Then, I noticed that they would start communicating similarly.  They would tell me when they didn’t have enough information to finish their project, or what obstacles were holding them back.  This kind of open communication became the catalyst to accomplishing more great things together.  Luckily, there’s research to back up the benefits of these casual conversations, as noted in the HBR article, “Leadership is a Conversation”: 

Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.

On the surface, it seems like authenticity can be summed up in two words:

“Be yourself.”

But putting yourself out there as a real human being who makes mistakes is vulnerable.  Especially as an emerging leader, you are constantly paving the next few years by your first few actions.  So then you must set standards for yourself in this new role, in the midst of feeling slightly under qualified and scared.

  • Will you show up honestly, vulnerably, and authentically?
  • Will you listen more than you talk?
  • Will you assume the best intentions?
  • Will you set professional boundaries?

And truthfully, if you don’t feel just a tad bit scared, then maybe your missing the point.  I’ll leave you with a few lines from the HBR Article titled: The Authenticity Paradox

“My research also demonstrates that the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively.  By viewing ourselves as works in progress, and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.


That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make use feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous.  But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.”


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