The Journey to Real


A few years ago I attended a conference as I was starting up my own business. There was a speaker in a breakout session who led us through a guided experience, and it moved me to tears. In brief, those tears had to do with my perception about myself that I was superficial. The good that came out of the experience was that it led me question my values, my behavior, my thoughts, and my “being”. This was the beginning of my journey to be real.

It’s been a long and difficult road, and at some point I realized that the superficiality I observed in myself was tied quite closely to a lack of humility. A natural optimist, I was only willing to see the good in everyone – including myself. I could see that when I wasn’t open to looking at my own dark side (those pesky weaknesses and overused strengths!). I lacked depth of character, and arrogance was hovering menacingly in the foreground. I started some very hard work to change.

I can still say that I work at depth of character daily – through what I read, what I write, regular meditation, and (still working at) deep listening to myself and (more importantly) to others. I can’t claim to be humble, but I have journeyed a short distance from “superficial” to finding the real person under all that ego that kept me from accepting who I was.

Recognizing the triggers that push me over the edge into arrogance is a daily struggle. I’m getting better at it, but still fall prey.

It isn’t easy to reveal myself in this public way, so why am I telling you all of this? I’m thinking that some of my own lessons may assist you in being the most real leader you can be. It’s hard and it takes effort and time – and you never arrive. But you can work on it. Some thoughts:

Get feedback. What’s keeping you from asking others about what they see as your strengths and weaknesses? Start now.

Study, read, question. We tend to make fun of “self help”, but studying and reading about issues you personally deal with and questioning your own behavior is a good way to learn more about yourself.

Reflect, set goals, act. Reflecting on your thoughts and behavior is an under-appreciated activity, but essential for the moral actions you must take as a leader.

Recognize arrogance. What triggers arrogance in you? It’s often fear. Fear of not being the best, of competing with others, of not belonging. Recognizing what activates your ego is the first step in dealing with your fears.

Have someone hold you accountable. Who can help you? Ask them; most people want to help.

Get more feedback. Keep asking for feedback to assure that you are staying on the path.

Depth of character, humility, and being real are all part of my journey. Perhaps they should be for you too? You’ll be at your best as a leader when you are willing to take that first step. Won’t you join me?


I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

7 comments on “The Journey to Real

  1. Mary Jo,

    Love your thoughts here on leadership, especially about getting the feedback we need to stay real. I was recently reading a great article on the leadership “growth mindset” and how it spurs innovation and change. Leaders who are as you describe and make themselves open to feedback are proven to increase innovation in their organizations:

  2. A great read – have known many people in my life who have a false sense of vanity of being a great leader in their work life and yet on a personal interaction they come out as being very arrogant, superficial with little consideration or respect for another human being let alone close friends. There seems to be a complete dichotomy and paradox in the ‘real’ person from the person we perceive we know!

  3. Helen, thank you for your comments. I’m not surprised that a leader being open to feedback can increase innovation in the workplace. It seems an odd connection, but intuitively, I know it to be true. Can’t wait to read the article, thanks.

    Jayanti,thanks. How true that a leader may be one way at work and another way personally. What you describe is ego at it’s worst, and your example underscores the need for a leader to take the journey to real.

  4. MJ, in this post you have captured what was me, and in some aspects still is me. I started my business in March of this year following a job elimination in December 2009. 2010 was my year of darkness, having lost my sense of self when the “work” me was stripped away.

    Recently, I co-facilitated and participated in an outdoor experiential course for The Leadership Challenge, as part of my certified master certification. It included high ropes course, group wall, “leap of faith” from the top of a telephone pole and other action-oriented group activities. Along with 13 other participants, I walked the edge of my comfort zone, and it pushed me beyond my self-imposed limits.

    The culminating activity (the “leap of faith”) asked us to state to the group what obstacle we were leaving behind, what we would allow to replace it, and asking the group specifically for the support we needed. One of the biggest take-aways (in addition to the physical challenge) was the reality that I need to tap into my support system who won’t let me fall, or will catch me when I do.

    Your post really spoke to my heart, MJ, and I thank you for the opportunity to respond.

    Lead on,

  5. Angie, thanks for sharing your experience. True to your character, I would expect you to take the opportunity presented to you and start “the work” – just as you have. Welcome to the journey! If I can support you in any way, just holler.

  6. Mary Jo,
    First of all, it is very brave for you to put your personal journeys and struggles online publicly to help others with their’s. I think it’s important for individuals to take a moment out of each day to stop being distracted by TV, internet, work, or smart phones, to just look at ourselves and assess the positives and negatives and to set goals. Thank you for the insights and the reminder that being a leader takes more than just assessing others.

  7. Hi Andrea, I think reflection time is one of the most underused tools in a leader’s toolkit. It isn’t just the time it takes that keeps us away from it – I also think there is a fear of what might be discovered. Yet, as you’ve alluded, it seems even more important in our fast paced world with so many distractions. Thanks for stopping over.

Comments are closed.