How To Be A Leader Who Gets Real

How much do I tell, how much do I withhold? When does self-revelation serve a conversation, when is it self-indulgent?

These can be tough questions for any leader to figure out. Here’s a recent case of somebody getting it right. Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City, last November announced a bold initiative to better tackle mental illness in the city. His initiative features increased access to mental health services for all New Yorkers, in recognition of the causal link between mental health issues and homelessness in New York.

To drive home that mental health is everybody’s issue, de Blasio made the announcement surrounded by his immediate family. And in conversation with NPR’s Linda Wertheimer, his outspoken wife Chirlane McCray by his side, de Blasio explained his family’s very personal link to mental health.


Chirlane and I both talk publicly about recognizing now, as adults, what our parents were going through, depression in the case of Chirlane’s parents and alcoholism and PTSD in the case of my father. And then, you know, what happens to us as a couple, our own daughter, Chiara, went through both substance abuse and anxiety challenges. And so, you know, we can’t say we’re going to address this problem and break down the stigma but not talk about the fact that it’s in our own lives.

De Blasio got it right. His family story made me listen. Made me care more deeply about a cause I thought I knew. DeBlasio beautifully navigated the intersection of context and social risk. He did so not by inundating us with more data. No, he relied on well-considered self-revelation.

Some Getting Real DON’Ts:

  • Spreading gossip is NOT getting real. It does damage to the folks you talk about and fosters a toxic work environment.
  • Divulging deeply personal challenges you’re facing in your private life may feel cathartic to you. It may also pressure folks to take care of you in ways that may not be helpful to them or you. Yes, some things are so compelling they must be revealed. Profound personal revelation tends to be more inspirational when the event occurred in the past!
  • Revealing strategic business information that isn’t public yet serves no one. It may cause panic in your team and it may do damage to the business. It simply means you have poor boundaries.

Some Getting Real DO’s:

  • When you speak about folks, speak about them with kindness. Praise IS real. So IS appreciation.
  • If major business activities are under way that you cannot talk about, let folks know that activities are afoot that you cannot talk about. That’s healthy transparency.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of fleeting encounters in the hallway, the cafeteria. Such moments are often more important than what you discuss in a formal business meeting.
  • When delivering a formal presentation, choose a conversational tone and pepper it freely with personal stories that both illuminate your message and reveal surprising facets of you to your team. Use ‘feeling’ words. They keep you human and accelerate the connection with folks who long to be inspired by you.
  • When attending a social function, a business dinner, venture beyond your ‘safe’ conversations. Let us know about challenges you faced, the lessons you have learned, the not-so-pretty parts of your personal story. We will admire you more. Consider these essential social risks!

Yes, getting real is always a game of context and social risk. Play it well. The rewards for considered self-revelation are tangible and substantial:

  • I will care about you. More.
  • I will care about the causes you champion. More.
  • I will commit to you. More.

That’s a good thing, every single time.[/wcm_restrict][wcm_nonmember]

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About the Author

Achim Nowak, president of Influens, is an international executive coach to Fortune 500 executives and entrepreneurs. He is the author of the new book, The Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating a Mindful Life in a Distracted World (New Page Books).

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