“I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier, ” Oprah Winfrey once said.
The word “leader” is often not associated with authenticity. In fact, many people claim that leadership is like acting, and that true leaders must perform, play a role and project a particular image. This may involve suppressing vulnerability, changing one’s personality to fit a situation, or feeling the need to convey impenetrable strength 24/7. One of the world’s most successful business leaders and entrepreneurs disproves this concept: Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah is ranked number nine on Forbes‘ list of richest self-made women and is the only black female billionaire in the U.S. She has hosted one of the most successful talk shows in history, started her own television network, operated her own magazine, launched the renowned Oprah’s Book Club, and even opened a leadership academy in South Africa.
The common, winning ingredient behind each of Oprah’s successful ventures? Oprah. And it was an epiphany during her talk show days that paved Oprah’s authentic leadership path.
Back in the 80s and 90s, Oprah led a field of daytime talk show hosts. However, the format of these shows was morphing into ratings-driven TV and sensationalism. In 1994, Oprah– influenced by Gary Zukav’s 1989 book The Seat of the Soul and its message about living with intention– said “no more” to tabloid TV.
She vowed that every episode would be “a force for good,” devoted to topics such as spirituality and self-actualization. These were topics that mattered to Oprah, and she (correctly) figured they would matter to others. Undeterred by rating pressures, Oprah continued with her “live your best life” format.
It was this format that would form the foundation for Oprah’s entire career. What can we learn from Oprah’s leadership path? And what are the steps to becoming an authentic leader?
1. Know yourself and know your strengths.
Before you even map out your career playbook, you must understand your strengths. Remember that everyone’s destination is different, so it stands to reason that all playbooks vary as well. We all have natural skills and talents, and you should use these as a baseline or jumping-off point. That way, you’ll ascend more quickly.
Oprah recognized her natural talent for public speaking and started her career as a teenager at a Nashville radio station. How do you go about applying your natural strengths to benefit your work and those around you? Start with research and discovery. If you have a talent for sales, you should research where those skills best fit within your organization.
What “behind the scenes” tips can you learn from others who have succeeded in that area? You can then work to further develop your skills and apply them to the greater good of your company.
2. Move past the stereotypes.
If a male executive yells in a meeting, he’s hot under the collar. If a woman yells in a meeting, she is unhinged and emotional. We can’t deny that stereotypes and unconscious bias exist.
As a woman, you must learn to be aware of gender bias and not let it define you. If you’re a passionate person who shows emotion or vulnerability in certain scenarios, don’t apologize for this.
There is no better example of “staying in your authenticity” than Oprah. When she would report stories about people being injured in an accident or fire, her empathy led her to seek these people out to offer help. While we can recognize stereotypes, we don’t need to believe them.
Meanwhile, we should work to create a more diverse leadership roster. We’ve all read the statistics: Less than six percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women. Research also suggests that women may lack confidence in their ability to enter the science and technology fields– the fields that men are stereotypically believed to perform more strongly in. Gender stereotypes can distort our views about ourselves and others, and buying into these stereotypes can limit you professionally.
3. Honor who you are and communicate consistently.
As a leader, you must honor who you are. Find your voice, use it, and remember that there is no one-size-fits-all. Teams look to their leadership on how to act, react, and build their own personal skills and development. Authenticity helps build a positive, holistic point of view for the team.
Use your authentic voice, communicate with it, and be consistent. Oprah did this when she built her brand around her own “live your best life” philosophy. Also, leaders should lead consistently in good times and bad. If you are out front when times are good but are quiet when times are bad, trust is eroded.
One example of consistent and authentic leadership: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic in March 2020. Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement during which she outlined a four-level COVID-19 alert system with clear guidelines. Her up-front and honest address also included what would be asked of citizens as the country fought COVID together.
4. Continually learn and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Leaders keep learning– and they embrace new ventures. Think of how many times Oprah has reinvented herself: talk show host, Academy Award-nominated actress, entrepreneur, and more. As you continue to hone your leadership skills, embrace change, mistakes, and the unexpected.
If this past year-and-a-half has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t control all the variables. The pandemic and remote work have reinforced that we have permission to be human. The pandemic has bolstered empathy among leaders and employees.
The walls between our “home” self and “work” self– as well as any existing walls separating leaders from employees– have collapsed. Cats climbed over our keyboards as we typed. Children entered the frame of our video calls, making faces in the background during our company meetings. You can’t script the unscripted and giving grace to your co-workers is essential.
Leadership is a learned skill, but it is bolstered by your innate qualities– your personality, your vulnerabilities, and your imperfections. Authenticity is what opens the door to a more rewarding career path, stronger working relationships, and a bigger impact as a leader.