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‘Dangerous’ leaders dare to be themselves
Meet Jennifer Smith, a new Gazette business columnist
By Jennifer Smith, - Dangerous Leaders
Jan. 29, 2023 5:00 am
Whether you were taught, mentored or figured it out as a leader, we share a developmental truth. We are inundated with ideas about how you should lead as a leader.
I challenge you to stop looking at those “shoulds” that encourage you to be who you are not. Instead, I challenge you to be brave and do what may feel like the most dangerous thing you can do as a leader: Be you.
The identity of leader came to me a bit later than some. I was midpoint between the sophomore and junior year of my undergraduate degree in criminology and had just been recruited into ROTC at California State University, Fresno.
Fort Knox, Ky., was my first trip outside of my home state, my first awe-struck look at fireflies, my first encounter with chiggers and my first emergence of the leadership ability and strength I hadn’t yet recognized in myself. Not only had I been handed the label of leader by way of a new military career, that label felt right.
That was a lifetime ago. Since then, I have been in relentless pursuit of increasing my self-awareness as a leader and a person.
After two combat deployments, I ended my military career while also confronting my alcoholism and entering recovery. I had divorce No. 1 under my belt and knew I wanted a family I didn’t have to leave again. A little power company right here in Cedar Rapids gave me my first post-military job, and I got to lead a group of union men in the maintenance of a power generation plant.
I also came face to face with my tendency to take on a lot, just to prove myself. While I knew I was a leader, I was also afraid “they’d all find out.” I am not sure what they were going to find out, but it was rooted in the idea that I wasn’t as good as I seemed to be on the surface. And I was good.
My next career move had me back in government operations, working as a support planning leader for military programs at another small Cedar Rapids company, this time in aerospace and defense.
I was married to husband No. 2 and soon our son joined us, three months early. While I lay staring at the hospital ceiling, doing all I could to slow his birth, I had time to think. I realized I had created a life I didn’t want, based on an external definition of success that didn’t fit. It would be five years before I’d be able to act on that awareness.
That awareness took me a few places like divorce No. 2, the opening of five and closing of four businesses, marriage to a man that challenges conformity as much as I do, and completion of a doctor of executive leadership degree.
That awareness also led me to what I love to do today: Develop people. I love to help people find that thing inside them that begs to be let out and that more than demands to be supplied. In many cases, that thing is leadership in some form.
It could be personal leadership of an aspect of their life, or it could be stepping into a new role in their career.
I have found, time and again, that providing people the support to make hard decisions, to be true to their values and beliefs, and to celebrate the wins, no matter how small, is key to doing the most dangerous thing this world sees. And that is to be true to who you are, no matter the situation.
Dangerous Leaders are authentic leaders who consistently learn through their experiences (ugly ones, too), seek to build more knowledge about their environment and themselves, and challenge the ruler of “should.”
Dangerous Leaders tell conformity to take a hike and find the best way, not the usual way. Dangerous Leaders don’t shy away from the hard to stay comfortable.
In this monthly column I’ll be writing, you will hear about different ways to approach the leadership situations you encounter by leveraging the best parts you develop in your leadership. You will get ideas, tips, and recommended actions to let that inner leader out and provide it the “more” it craves.
Each month, I will invite you to engage in the dangerous deed of leading authentically from where and who you are. I hope you will accept the challenge.
Jennifer Smith is a Cedar Rapids-based personal and executive coach, host of The Dangerous Leader Podcast, and unapologetic optimist; firstname.lastname@example.org; @drjennsmith