Leadership: Lipstick, Lighthouses, and Windows

I spent most of August on college campuses with staff, students, coaches, and student-athletes who were returning for yet another school year. Several of the groups I worked with requested sessions on leadership development. During these sessions, we experienced a few lightbulb moments that are simply too good to keep to myself.

In each session, I shared several hundred photographs. I asked the participants to get into small groups and to identify images that represented inauthentic leaders and images that represented authentic leaders. The following examples came from three different groups but they each received the exact same response; the audience fell silent, then a few people said “whoa,” and then snaps or applause filled the room. I’m amazed at the depth and insights these young students were able to apply after our short time together.

In one session a young college student stood before the group holding a picture of lipstick and I must admit, I was not at all sure where she was going with this image. She spoke on behalf of her small group and said, “We selected this image of lipstick to represent inauthentic leaders. We feel like inauthentic leaders don’t really care for their people and they aren’t focused on doing what is important to their people. This kind of leader just dresses the part, they are focused on their appearance. It’s like they put on their lipstick to look good, but they aren’t really leading. When you remove the lipstick, you find out there isn’t much there to work with.

In another session, a high school student came forward to share the image her small group had selected. When she held up a picture of a lighthouse I was once again very curious about this selection. She said, “We selected this image of a lighthouse for inauthentic leaders because this kind of leader wants to be seen, they want people looking at them and paying attention to them, but they aren’t looking out for others. The light they shine is always about themselves. They don’t care about the people they are leading; they just want to know that others are looking at and admiring them.”

And in yet another session a young college student stood before a room full of her peers and held up a picture of an old window. She then shared, “We selected this image for an authentic leader. We noticed that this window is old, dirty, worn out and a little broken but it is also transparent. As my group talked, we agreed that it’s ok to be a little broken as a leader, in fact, if we are being honest we are all a little broken and that’s ok as long as you are transparent about it. We think authentic leaders value transparency.

So, what is your image of an inauthentic or authentic leader? Are you willing to trade-in the lipstick and the lighthouse in exchange for a broken window? We need more worn-out and slightly broken but always transparent leaders.

Molly Grisham