Lately I have been thinking about authenticity, especially it relates to leadership. I keep returning to two opposite images from the first weeks of my freshman year in college.
I arrived at my all girls’ dorm to find most of the women in my corridor had already spent a week on campus for sorority rush. They sped about, dressed to kill, barely slowing down enough to say hi to those of us straggling in late to the party. Although I felt regret at having missed the opportunity to settle in early, the process of rush appealed to me even less than the cafeteria food, which I soon chose to skip in favor of ordering late night extra cheese pizzas from Dominos.
As an adult, I can see that I was quick to judge sororities, not taking time to understand their appeal. Women who join sororities become part of a sisterhood of lifelong friendships, participate in community service, develop leadership skills, enjoy countless social events, and create a network in the Greek system that is a benefit far into the future. But my knee-jerk reaction was to my own misguided notion that sororities were elite – and possibly superficial — social clubs where I would not be welcome.
At the risk of offending any die-hard Tri-Delts or Kappa Kappa Gammas, I will admit that my opinion of sororities and rush was based on generalizations and stereotypes. I felt that to be successful in rushing a sorority, I would have to be someone else, engaging in unfamiliar behaviors and activities, buying clothes to fit the part, putting on a new persona like the makeup I eschewed.
At age eighteen, away from home for the first time, I might not have known who I was, but I knew who I wasn’t. My major, and my affiliations, were still undeclared. I was searching to find my niche, to define my true self, as a person and a leader.
Early in my first weeks on campus, I met Jane, a staff member of a campus organization. She stopped by my room casually to welcome me to campus. Jane is ageless; she must have been in her late thirties at the time but almost 20 years later, she is still working on campus. What impressed me most that day about Jane was her sincerity and warmth.
The details of our conversation have faded, but I remember clearly the invitation she offered: come with me to Arby’s so we can get a Coke and talk. It was the start of a four year mentoring relationship, the first of many Cokes we would share. I got involved with her organization, becoming a leader in various ways. All along the way, Jane was there, giving direction, encouragement, advice: all with a genuine love for me and the other students in our group.
I recently found Jane on Facebook. Her friend list has nearly 1500 friends, evidence of her amazing ability to influence and connect with students. What still impresses me about Jane is that she is real, lacking any pretension. Jane makes her objectives clear while enthusiastically inviting others to join the cause.
Jane’s mentoring helped me understand myself and clarify my values. As I have sought to lead and influence others in various spheres of my life and work, lessons from Jane echo through my words and actions.
Take time to get to know people, and let them know you. Although Jane was undoubtedly a busy woman, she was never in a hurry. When I met with her, she was focused and concentrated on our conversation. She made people her priority, and if it was my hour with her, I was her priority. During my first job after college, I adopted Jane’s practice of inviting the students I worked with out for Cokes. It worked. Time with people forges a bond that makes work together more sucessful.
Teach others to do what you do. One of the hallmark’s of Jane’s work was multiplying her efforts by getting others involved in the work. Instead of hoarding her best methods and practices, she freely contributed her expertise and ideas. As a result, she created a team of people who accomplished much more than she could on her own.
Never stop giving. Jane was tireless in sharing her time and resources with others. She worked hard every day to achieve the goals of her organization. Whenever I am weary of doing good, her example of steadfast service prods me on.
Be who you are. From Jane I learned that in order to mentor others, you have to be authentic. It is not possible to lead others by false example.
What lessons have you learned from mentors? What wisdom can you pass on by mentoring others?
This post was originally published at Mountain State University Leadertalk and is republished here with permission.