Since 2014, I have served as a guest lecturer for a Masters degree class for healthcare leaders on “Leading Change in Biotechnology” at Johns Hopkins University. This letter, written in April 2014, is one I share with the students each year. –Amita
Sitting here at my computer, on a cool April evening in Washington, DC, typing these words to you, I have to confess, I am both delighted and dismayed. I am excited because technology and this online learning platform are bringing us together—not in place, or even time (since I understand you span the globe), but in what I can best describe as spirit. For many of us, this was inconceivable when we were growing up. So I am truly grateful and inspired that we, who otherwise might never meet, will have the chance to discuss our thoughts and ideas through the shared portals of cyberspace. Yet I must tell you that I am also a bit distressed. While I have taught many classes over the years, this is my first time teaching one purely online, and that too on authentic leadership!
Authenticity is an expression of our integrity. It is aligning (1) who we think we are with (2) who we say we are and (3) what we actually do. It is a striving for consistency and is both the foundation and the aspiration of great leadership. It defines what we stand for, what we believe in, and why. At its best, authentic leadership reveals the power of what is possible when our highest potential is unlocked and unleashed—within us and in those around us. It is the deepest expression of our most human essence.
Thus, it strikes me as ironic that we must undertake a discussion on a topic such as this without the benefit of interacting as fully present human beings and limited to words traversing screens. Over many years of working with entrepreneurs and executives, I consistently observed that the best leaders always show up—in body, mind, and spirit. Whether they face a tragedy befalling an employee, a difficult conversation with their team, or an unexpected crisis at their company, great leaders value their teams and express that through their actions. They are the first to stand up and the last to sit down. They don’t transfer blame. They take ownership. They don’t look for the easy way out. They seek the right path and walk it unafraid, even when it is difficult. In doing so, they teach accountability, responsibility, and courage, not by their talk but by their walk.
There is much we learn from showing up that no sophistication of technology can replace. We absorb the nuances of human interaction that use no words. We learn to understand the faces and feelings of those around us. We experience the energy of a group and bring our energy to it. We connect at the level of not just the mind but also the spirit. If there is only one thing you remember from this piece, let it be this: When you have a choice between showing up and not, always go. Be there. Just stand on the sidelines if you must. In our high-tech times, the allure of working from home or video conferencing sometimes makes it too easy to communicate without being completely present. We live behind screens and multitask. Yet we begin to truly converse only when we bring our full presence. And when you are a leader, your being there matters more than you might realize. Your actions, more than your memos, guide your team. And your principles, more than your speeches, weave them together.
Yet, as is the case with us this week, sometimes circumstances make “being there” impossible. What then? As I’ve pondered this question in recent years, I’ve realized that if we bring our most authentic essence to the words that travel and stand in our place, through their sincerity, integrity, and candor, they transmit a part of us—our presence in spirit. How, you might be wondering, do we do this? Being authentic in our words begins with truly knowing ourselves.
In business school, I took an entrepreneurship class that was taught through case studies of mistakes and failures. In each class, the entrepreneurs who were the subjects of that week’s study showed up to share the lessons they had learned. The most authentic leaders—just like those I met during my years in venture capital and more recently as an entrepreneur—embodied confidence, trust, and respect. They knew which values they stood for, which principles they lived by, and why. They were unafraid to face challenges because they were unafraid to face themselves. And this was not any easier for them. Many great leaders had overcome devastating personal and professional crises before they reached their ultimate positions of leadership. Rather than having less to face, most had more.
In recent years, I have tried to understand what endows us with the ability to confront ourselves and the challenges we face in the world. By “knowing ourselves” I don’t mean knowing our likes and preferences or even our goals and ambitions. I mean truly delving into why we are who we are and why we do what we do—a genuine, honest, and open-minded exploration of what defines us at our most fundamental level.
For me, this journey took shape a few years ago. One winter evening, I came home after an especially challenging and exhausting week at work. As I began to unwind, I wondered what advice I could offer the entrepreneurs and leaders I had encountered that week. Over the next hour, I wrote down the core principles that I felt mattered most. Then, tired and busy planning for the next day, I forgot about those words—until I rediscovered them weeks later. Rereading them, I realized they were as much advice I had given to myself—a set of principles I believed in and aspired to live by. In the weeks and years to come, often in unexpected ways, they began to guide my days. And when I started Vitamita in 2012, in their original, unedited form, they became its manifesto.
As you consider how to be an authentic leader in your work, your life, and in the world, the best teaching I can offer here is a simple invitation. Over the next few days, find an hour or two of quiet time alone. Take a pen and paper and write down the simple values you believe in and aspire to live by. Yes, use pen and paper, because they will help you think deliberately, and crossed-out words will linger, to be reconsidered. Keep it short: 200 to 250 words. This will help you focus. Don’t overthink it. Write from the heart. Remember, these words are not goals but principles. They don’t tell you where to go but guide you on your way. Think of them as your leadership manifesto. Share them with the class. Put them out there. Calibrate yourself against them. Sometimes you might wander off, but, over time, they become an anchor. You begin to lead with them because they represent your truths. And as they guide your work and your life, you bring them into the world.
Since I started Vitamita a few years ago, I have been focused on studying the upper bounds of human well-being—not just how we can be healthier but how we can each attain our highest potential. The journey has revealed many insights, which led me to writing Enduring Edge. One of the most powerful insights has been grasping the true meaning of authenticity. By aligning what we think, with what we say, and what we do, we access the real secret of true leadership. We attain the ability not just to lead others from the outside but also—and more important—learn to inspire them from within to strive for their highest potential. Authentic leadership is not a special skill reserved for some we call leaders. It is a journey we can each undertake and, in doing so, discover the leader within us. Then, even when it is merely words that we share with others, those reading them can gain a glimpse into our authentic spirit and, within it, often discover their own.
Please Note: These ideas took shape alongside Chapter 14 of Enduring Edge and are explored further there and throughout the book.