“Freedom” is a word often misused in our current vocabulary. We view our “freedoms” in such a broad manner that the word sometimes loses its meaning. Particularly in the case of young people, “freedom” is synonymous with “doing whatever I like”, but that’s not authentic freedom. Authentic freedom is being able to choose what’s good for you, and yet remaining unencumbered by things that prevent you from being healthy. In fact, unbounded freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want is not freedom; it is license.
For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
– Nelson Mandela
It’s really not a radical concept, the idea that freedom is bound by responsibilities and limits; in fact it’s preserved in our system of laws and our notion of justice. We regulate speech and assembly both for the common good and for the individual’s good. People are not permitted to gather for the purpose of fomenting violence, and we don’t allow a person to run into a theater and shout “fire” without just cause. Ideally, our laws are constructed to both protect the common good, and safeguard individual liberty. However, the freedom we enjoy as Americans is not unfettered liberty. We are free but we do not have license to do whatever we want.
Authentic freedom is an individual’s ability to choose what is good without being impeded or bound, be it an internal or external restriction. If an individual’s appetites or another person’s demands prevent the individual from making good choices, then we can objectively say that the individual is not free.
In the marketplace, more and more people are now seeking authenticity, and whole industries have grown up in the last ten years to meet that need. The demand for artisan products ranging from spirits to furniture to health care products has grown significantly. “Authentic” connotes something that’s real, something that’s connected to the world around it, and something that’s honest. When we seek out “authentic” restaurants, we are looking for something made by humans rather than stamped out in a factory and re-heated. When we purchase “authentic” antiques, we want a piece that is actually from that other time and place, not a replica. In other words, when we seek “authenticity” we’re seeking something real, tangible, and connected to the world around us. In an age when privacy is difficult to come by and it’s hard to predict what can go viral in an instant, people are also seeking authenticity in their work and their leaders. They’re seeking that authenticity, I think, because despite the electrons whizzing about in the air, people still have a fundamental need to connect to each other and the world in tangible ways.
Authentic in the context of “living and leading” is just like that handmade loaf of bread from Mom’s kitchen or the reclaimed shiplap on the wall of the newly renovated home: it means being a leader who is real, connected, and honest. An authentic leader is mindful of both the common good and individual good. An authentic leader both requires respect and gives it. An authentic leader is the same person on Monday morning as they were on Sunday morning or Friday night, and they intend to do good rather than just avoiding doing wrong. They are the same person from day to day–they assure people around them their “face” is in fact their “person” and mean it. An authentic leader will put others before themselves, and they will always seek to leave their teams and their organizations better than they found them.
Leaders also have a responsibility to husband their own personal resources and set a good example of character to lead their teams to high performance. In the military, we call that “walking the talk,” but that same principle is played out in all occupations and every endeavor daily. As leaders, we must never ask someone to do something we are unwilling to do ourselves. We follow the rules we set for others, and we are willing to roll up our sleeves and help our teammates out when it’s necessary. Truly, who wants work for someone who is not who they pretend to be? Who wants to follow someone who can’t relate to their teammates as human beings, or is unwilling to follow their own rules? The answer: no one wants to follow a leader like that–at least not for very long–no matter how many digits in the paycheck.
In my upcoming book, The Five Be’s, I discuss my philosophy for living an authentic life. The Five Be’s are Be Proud, Be Free, Be Virtuous, Be Balanced, and Be Courageous, and the underlying principle is living and leading authentically. It’s a talk I used to give to the new Airmen when they were freshly arrived at my unit, where I offered them a positive vision after months or years of hearing little else but “don’t” and “no.” I think it’s applicable to all age groups, not just the young ones, because each of us must wake and make decisions daily about what gets our energy that day. Living authentically and The Five Be’s is certainly a philosophy applicable for leaders who want to be their best and get the best from their teams. Good character and authenticity are perquisites for good leadership.
It’s central to good leadership to set the example by being authentic, and encouraging our teams to do the same. While sometimes, the job we’re doing requires personal sacrifice and the proverbial “blood, sweat, and tears,” leaders cannot be blind to the human factor in every equation. Leadership, after all, is primarily a human endeavor. We must remember our people can’t give 110% all the time; no one can give more than they have. So while that “110%” cliché is a helpful metaphor for “maximum effort” it can’t be a reasonable way to live or work. If we sprint all the time, we won’t have any energy for the sprint when it’s really necessary. An authentic leader–or any person striving to live an authentic life–understands that truism. Work hard and work smart, but remember to sprint only when you have to do so. If we’re real and not two-faced, if we connect to the people and world around us, if we’re honest with others and ourselves then we’re living and leading authentically. Doing that will lead enable us to lead our teams to high performance, and will make sure we get everyone to the finish line together–including ourselves. Authentic leaders are honest to themselves and their teammates, and they remember they are part of a team, a family, and a community that also deserve some of their energy. The authentic leader is able to stay connected, even in the hardest times.
Living authentically—real, connected, honest– is a formula for success in business and in life.
Mickey is a consultant, author, and keynote speaker. He believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 30 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with
Mickey is the author of eight books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The Five Be’s: A Straightforward Guide to Life.