Leadership Lesson #5

Beware of Sweaty Palms

“Dignity is good business. But it fails to be good business if we respect the dignity of persons solely for the sake of good business. There need to be far deeper” reasons 
—Peter Bloch

Near my home on wooded land sits the only Tibetan Cultural Center in America. Inside the residence quarters lives a retired professor of philosophy whose brother is the Dali Llama. As brothers naturally do, the Dali Llama came to visit, arriving with a throng of spiritual seekers, world leaders, media and other assorted dignitaries who follow his every move. 

In a special gathering for community, he lectured on the “Art of Happiness.” While I sat in the audience with my children, I watched as the Dali Lama greeted college students, professors, children, word leaders, rock stars, and Chief Executives. I noticed his body language and conversation were the same for each person, no matter if celebrity or child, business mogul or teacher. Most walked away feeling as though he had spoken only to them. 

Months after the Dali Lama’s visit, I read the ancient story of the monk named Kasan. He had been called to officiate at the funeral of a famous nobleman and as he stood greeting world leaders and ordinary folks, Kasan noticed that the palms of his hands were sweaty. The next day he confessed to his spiritual teacher that he was not ready for leadership because he lacked the “sameness of bearing” in the world that he possessed in the temple. The ‘sameness of bearing’ was what I had witnessed in the Dali Lama. He saw people, not role or stature. He did not have sweaty palms.

My time with the Dali Lama and the story of Kasan filled me with questions: Can one really be a capitalist and an authentic leader? Can you truly be yourself in the corporate cubicle and still advance in the environment? Can authentic behavior live in business and in government or is it only open to spiritual leaders, monks and assorted saints? Is everything I’ve learned about authentic leadership wrong?

Suits and Saints

Struggling with those questions took me back to the business people I had known who had most exhibited authentic leadership. There was Chip Conley, Founder and Chief Executive officer of JDV, the second largest boutique hotelier in the world. Although Chip’s business acumen, Stanford MBA and entrepreneurial skill contribute to his success, I am convinced that his authentic behavior creates it. I’ve seen his authenticity in play as he greets the housekeeper, the janitor or the Mayor. Chip has as much respect for the bus boy as he does for Sir Richard Branson. He knows that the next big idea or innovation, the game changing thought, could come from the bellman as well as the boardroom. What you see is what you get with Chip, no matter the platform, place or time.

Chip learned long ago that human interaction of the type and kind that matter, are stifled when you lose yourself in a role. It sets one apart from others and casts a blind eye on the contributions of those outside your circle of influence. Chip doesn’t have sweaty palms. 

Humility and a deep respect for people are often the common denominators found among those who live authentic leadership. A perfect example of those traits is Mike McCloskey. My business partner, Gary Heil met Mike many years ago on the neighborhood tennis court. Mike rarely spoke of his career and only described his work as one of a senior level executive in technology. Mike was so modest about his work that Gary began to wonder if he worked for the CIA on some clandestine mission!

Authenticity of the Leader

Whether it was the caddy on the golf course or the waitress in a restaurant, Mike let people know that they mattered. Conversations were always about them and rarely about him. Sorting through the mail one day, Gary saw Mike’s picture staring back at him on the cover of a national business magazine. Imagine Gary’s shock in learning that Mike was a Silicon Valley legend! Former President and Director of Genesys Telecom, Mike had helped several technology firms launch initial public offerings and had engineered the sale of Alcatel for 1.2 billion dollars. Mike didn’t think to mention it because those were just the things that he did. They were not who he was. Mike did not believe that his accomplishments placed him on a higher level than those he befriended or worked with. Mike didn’t have sweaty palms.

Through design, business is a hierarchical affair. We take comfort in perk charts and reporting systems that illuminate a path amidst the chaos found in the marketplace. Although structure is important and a necessary business tool, we can lose our authenticity in the organizing function. Philosopher Eckhart Tolle says, “that the more identified people are with respective roles, duties and hierarchy, the less authentic their relationships become.” Truth be told, we’ve all had sweaty palms: 

—A disposition, an action or a conversation that is not truly our nature but seems to overtake us in the presence of those who carry influence or power.

—A lack of self-confidence in our own competencies that compels us to create a face we show to the world that is not our own;

—A discarding of value for another’s contribution or idea because they don’t occupy the right box on the organizational chart;

—Treating people differently because of their stature, rank, or power.

Loss of authenticity thwarts our abilities to unlock the potential of those who follow. In contrast, authentic behavior feeds and nurtures people and opens a safe space for their creativity and innovation. The good news is that you don’t have to be the Dali Lama or a Zen master to recover your authentic self. However, it is not something you can fake. It is something that you must choose to become.

Authenticity is a Verb

We can return to authenticity by recognizing that it is a verb: something that we do in order to become. It’s being aware of the effect our roles have on authentic self. It’s making choices and taking actions that reflect who we really are. It’s demonstrating respect, showing genuine interest and attentiveness. It’s sharing our foibles and addressing our lack of self-confidence. It’s taking the risk of being ourselves in alignment with who we are, no matter the environment. It’s being the ‘real deal’. It’s an understanding that becoming authentic often creates a by-product of enormous success. It’s recognizing the meaning behind your own sweaty palms.