I love to hear feedback after I speak. This recent comment really struck me:
"During your talk, I turned to the gal sitting next to me and told her: 'Meryl just said the opposite of what the speaker before her said.'"
"Thanks for noticing!" I replied smiling. "From the moment I heard the title of the keynote that I would follow, I expected we would say different things.” The keynote I followed was called “Cultivating a Leadership Persona.”
“I've spent most of my adult years working to drop persona and be the real deal," I explained. My new friends nodded approvingly and knowingly.
It used to bother me that my perspective often is very different from others'. It doesn't bother me anymore. I’ve become more at home with myself. I see things differently without needing to discredit how others view then. The speaker before me made some important points and offered useful tools. I offered some alterative views.
"What struck you as so different?" I asked the conference attendee.
"That feelings are part of powerful communication. The fellow before you would have us all be feeling-less robots."
The woman next to her exclaimed: "I'm sorry. But we're women! The other speaker about croaked in a breakout session when someone asked 'What do you do when you have a crier?'"
What DO you do when you have a crier? Maintain a persona of cool indifference? Or respond as a thinking, feeling and proactive human being?
The integration of persona and personhood – or image and essence – is about more than gender difference. Accepting our humanity in ways such as being able to integrate feelings into professional communication is a leadership skill. So is cultivating persona since we are judged by the image we project. We don’t want things like passive gestures to undermine assertive words. Persona matters.
Authenticity matters too. For example, the best way to appear trustworthy is to BE trustworthy. Who you are has a way of shining through any packaging attempt. If you have some residual habits that signal a lack of trustworthiness, by all means, identify them and consciously change them. Just don’t expect a pretty bow to disguise a poisoned present.
Approach persona with caution. People can only consciously focus on a few things at a time. If I consciously attempt to appear confident – say by adopting a confident stance – that takes some of the bandwidth I need to listen well. Listening well fosters genuine confidence because I understand the situation. Cultivating persona puts the attention on yourself and appearances. Don’t let that undermine your quest to be present and engaged and tap in to the brilliance of who you actually are.
My friend Sue dropped a persona quest and rediscovered her own beauty. "I can't believe I spent that much time working that hard to be someone I'm not!" Sue confessed. I tried to tell her when she was in it, but she needed to go through it herself. Now Sue is "herselfer" than ever.
It took about a year for the spell of success gurus who preached quick mega-bucks to wear off and for Sue to rediscover her own center. It took about a year for her to stop trying to center herself around the instant-answer-industry's center. In that year, she experienced overwhelm, angst and ungroundedness. Now she’s at home with herself again.
Sue discovered what we all need to know. Being someone you’re not is hard work. It also can be tough to remove a mask you’ve worn habitually for years. But it’s well worth the effort. When you are able to be authentic – and to say what you mean and mean what you say without being mean when you say it – you know your own true power. True power is the power that comes from being at home with yourself. Even if your perspective is uniquely different. Or perhaps all the more because your perspective is uniquely different.