In 2007, my husband, then boyfriend, told me that I needed to get a hobby. I was loafing around the house and didn’t have an outlet. I can’t remember how I took his demand, but I probably wasn’t the most receptive to being told that I needed to change. Anyway, I was outside having a cigarette that evening and I heard the rumble of a piston-engine aircraft approach. We lived a few blocks from a community airport at the time. I realized what I wanted to do: learn to fly. So, I did. I went to the airport, signed up for my first lesson, ground school, and ordered a headset and books. Over the next year, I learned the ins and outs of flying. In just under a year, I had my private pilot’s license.
Part of being a pilot is staying healthy and smoking is not compatible with staying healthy. Pilots have to carry evidence that they are fit to fly, we do this by carrying our medical card. The medical card is issued every 6 months, year, or three years, depending on your license. Since I wasn’t flying commercially or for an airline, I only needed the once every three-year physical, a Class 3. The first time I went for a medical, it went fine. I was a little overweight and had slightly elevated blood pressure, but otherwise, I was healthy. Three years later, for my first renewal, I barely passed. My blood pressure nearly disqualified me, I had put on 20 pounds, and was barely fit to fly. I told myself I’d do better and get healthier. But, three years later, I hadn’t. I went to my regular doctor, for flight physicals we have to go to a Designated Medical Examiner, a specially trained and FAA licensed physician. I asked my regular doctor, who used to do flight physicals, to give me a once over. He told me that I would fail. My blood pressure was too high, I was obese, and he told me it wasn’t worth going because not getting it is less bad than failing. I was shocked and scared and I lit up another cigarette. At this point, I was smoking more than a pack-a-day. Some days, especially when we were drinking, I could smoke two packs.
Being told that I could, effectively, lose my pilots license over my health was shocking to me. I was 29, I was young, I couldn’t be unhealthy. I, objectively, was. This disconfirmation of my perceptions of my own health was amazingly shocking. I asked the doctor what I should do and he told me to start by losing some weight, maybe 20 or 30 pounds. I committed to that. Authentic leadership considers critical life events to be those that are major enough to change people’s lives (Northouse, 2016). Critical life events serve as the stepping off point, the catalyst, for change (Northouse, 2016). Within six months, I had lost 70 pounds and my blood pressure was coming back down under control. I had cut my smoking back to less than a pack-a-day and passed my flight physical. My doctor, jokingly but seriously, told me that I made a critical mistake. I asked what he meant, he told me that I showed him that I had self-discipline, so now I didn’t have an excuse to not quit smoking.
The power of this event didn’t stop with overcoming the adversity of getting my medical back, it kept going. In October of that year, 2013, my blood pressure started creeping back up. I was running every day, eating healthy, and, while still smoking, doing it less. I thought, maybe, that my mindset had something to do with it. I could feel that stomach-sinking sensation right before I hit the start button on my monitor, when you feel that, your blood pressure spikes. Anyway, I called a therapist’s office around the corner from my office and booked an appointment. I only wanted to talk about my blood pressure and to learn some calming techniques so that I could overcome this white-coat syndrome I had. The therapist, upon our first interaction, knew there was more than just the blood pressure going on. Besides losing weight and getting my medical back, I was passive in my life. I would get upset when things that I didn’t like happened, but I would insist that I didn’t have any control over it. I was motivated by making money and showing off that success. In fairness, I was emulating the behaviors of role models in my life like my bosses, coworkers, and, to some extent, my parents.
Authentic leadership combines positive psychological characteristics, moral reasoning, and critical life events as the precursors for its four key components: self-awareness, internalized moral perspective, balanced processing, and relational transparency (Northouse, 2016). I had a critical life event and I built some confidence and learned resilience, two of the positive psychological characteristics along the way (Northouse, 2016). In therapy, I came to discover that, while I learned to express negativity and pessimism, thinking it was a way of sounding smarter, I actually was quite optimistic and hopeful. I had a dissonance in my thinking that stopped me from expressing optimism and hope. Hope and optimism are the other two psychological factors authentic leadership requires (Northouse, 2016).
My therapist quickly discovered that I have strong opinions about things. I’ve learned to back off of them when they aren’t morally effective. I have a strong sense of right and wrong and when I think something is morally questionable, you’ll know because I’ll tell you. My morality has two strong roots: my parents, they were both public servants and taught me to privilege others before me, and my coming out at 16 as the only gay kid in a high school of 2,400. I was the victim of bullying nearly every day, from verbal insults to physical aggression, from unspoken out-grouping to expressed ostracization. I get very upset if I think someone is being victimized. It took me several years to really understand this, to get why I got so upset about these things, and to learn to articulate my feelings succinctly and rationally. Moral reasoning is the capacity leaders have to promote justice, to transcend individual interests, and to align followers to common goals (Northouse, 2016). The therapy that followed this critical life incident has helped me hone and shape my moral reasoning.
The therapy that followed this critical life incident didn’t stop with hope and optimism and moral reasoning, it kept going. I’ve learned to become more self-aware. Self-awareness is our insight into ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, and our impact on others (Northouse, 2016). I used to think that events happened to me, that I was at the mercy of a stage of actors that controlled my life. That, no matter my actions, I was the victim. It took me a while, but I eventually came to agree that we are often the biggest impacts on the situations we experience. Once I learned how I impact situations, it was easier to see when I was letting the situation impact me. I would often regret over or under-reacting to stimulus. For example, I would often have heated exchanges about business decisions with our company’s owners but look past them doing questionable things, like making hourly staff take paid time off for company closed days while not requiring the same of salaried staff. I would listen to their arguments about business expense and complexity and accept their justifications.
Internalized moral processing and balanced processing are features of authentic leadership; the former refers to using our own moral standards for decision-making and the latter to understanding others perspectives and including them in our decision-making (Northouse, 2016). Effectively, authentic leaders welcome the opinions of others and weigh them against their own moral compass. I have strong internal moral processing, I know my rights from my wrongs and I’ve learned to not use rationalization as justification. Listening to others, that’s taken a while and remains a challenge, occasionally, for me. I used to think that being right or wrong was a measure of a person’s character and internalized that. A person’s value, then, was based on how correct they were. I would feel threatened by dissenting opinions and would get defensive, sometimes combative. People didn’t like me very much, rightfully so, I was a know-it-all jerk. The better part of three years with my therapist was highly focused on listening to others. I’ve come to value listening to other’s opinions, I see the beauty of challenging my own perception.
Learning to be okay with being wrong, accepting that other’s opinions could be correct, has made me more humble. That humility has allowed me to openly discuss and share my vulnerabilities. Relational transparency is a feature of authentic leadership and it describes a self-regulated open and honest presentation of our true selves to others (Northouse, 2016). Sometimes, like maybe in this post, I overshare. I need to keep working on the self-regulation part. But I do love sharing exactly who I am with the world.
I was a different person before I was told I had to lose weight to keep something I loved. That critical incident forced me to make changes, to accept help, and to keep growing. These critical events are catalyzing, sparking changes that have long term impacts. I didn’t stop changing when I lost weight and accomplished my goal. I didn’t stop when I quit smoking in April 2014. This one incident has sparked for me so much: we moved out of the suburbs and into the city, I went back to college, I’ve run five marathons and countless half-marathons, I’ve taken up rowing and am learning how to coxswain. Had this not happened, I do not know what my life would look like? Would I still be smoking? Would I still be a ticking-time-bomb, both emotionally and physiologically?
Authentic leadership has three primary approaches: interpersonal, intrapersonal, and developmental (PSU WC, 2019, L. 12). The developmental perspective includes the other two approaches, noting that authentic leaders must have certain traits but that skills can be built, this growth occurs when a person is moved outside their comfort zone, in a critical life incident (PSU WC, 2019, L. 12). I think that I have lived through the developmental approach over the last six years. I’ve gone from being a toxic, unhealthy, unhappy person, to a gregarious, friendly, thoughtful leader.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership theory and practice (7th ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). Lesson 12: Authentic leadership. PSYCH485: Leadership in Work Settings. Retrieved June 23, 2019, from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/canvas/su19/2195min-5376/content/12_lesson/printlesson.html