One of my all-time favourite stories is Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, the enchanting story of how a toy rabbit becomes real. Like most good children’s stories, it holds valuable lessons for adults as well.
The story helps us learn that sometimes what we go through for a friend may make us a little worn and torn, but that’s what makes the friendship real. Friendship often goes through testing times, but true friendship endures and even grows as a result of the testing.
It was at this point that Keegan remarked drily: ‘Tamryn, you’re too real.’
Being real as a leader is no easy task. The temptation to mask things supposedly for the benefit of the troops is all too natural a reaction. There even is a certain rationale to it that makes it easy to justify. ‘After all,’ the rationale goes, ‘If I display any kind of vulnerability (realness), I will lose the respect of those I lead.’ And whilst it can be argued that there was a time when leaders were not expected to be real – and in that context, and for that particular generation, this style was appropriate – this is no longer the case. That stoic, impersonal approach to leadership simply doesn’t work for a younger generation whose behaviour is informed by different values and who look for – and expect – different things in today’s leaders. In a world which hasn’t fully grasped this fundamental shift in expectation, leaders who choose to be real often pay a high price. They are removed, ignored, silenced and remain unelected, but their influence and lives somehow still manage to inspire, influence and provide hope for those of us who look for leaders who understand not only themselves but those they lead.
For me, authenticity and leadership should never be mutually exclusive realities.
‘What is REAL?’ asked the rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That is why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
Leaders…it’s time to get real!