The Real Deal

Authenticity in the Superintendency

By Corey Whaley Last Updated: November 11, 2022

When Dr. Terri Bresnahan greeted the crowd of staff and teachers at Community Consolidated School District 59’s Opening Institute Day, she started by sharing a story. “Setting the tone for the year in front of this sea of people was really an opportunity to share who I am as a person,” the Illinois superintendent says. Bresnahan told her nearly 1,000 staff members about a sixth grader in a nearby district who used to struggle with separation anxiety and had a hard time getting to school every day.

The boy’s counselor eventually set up dedicated times for him to start his day at school in a safe space and also proposed a creative idea: What if he brought a picture of his mother to have with him whenever he was feeling anxious in class? Before long, he and his mother were taking daily selfies together for him to keep on his phone whenever he needed to see her.

But for Bresnahan, this story wasn’t just a colorful anecdote for her speech. “That mother happened to be me,” she told the crowd before flipping through slide after slide of selfies from her son’s collection.

“Sharing my story was so powerful and incredibly vulnerable for me,” she says. “And it was really scary. I’m only in my second year as superintendent in this school district.” But Bresnahan immediately knew she’d done the right thing. “Just watching people’s reactions, I could see how they were able to relate,” she adds. “I could see them thinking: She’s a mother and she struggles, too, you know? We immediately had that connection.”

Connecting to her employees by being authentically herself was a thoughtful move—and a smart one. Research shows that leaders in the private sector who embody authenticity foster happier, healthier workplaces and relationships. In fact, according to a study in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, “employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of job satisfaction.” Not only that, but being authentic encourages the same in your employees and students. Having staff and students who engage in the personal work necessary to live more authentically won’t just make leading easier. It’ll make those you’re leading happier.

To find out what it really means to be an authentic leader, we looked to an expert on the subject. Julie Jungalwala is the co-founder of the Institute for the Future of Learning and the author of The Human Side of Changing Education: How to Lead Change With Clarity, Conviction, and Courage. She also teaches a course on authentic leadership at Harvard University. Jungalwala argues that in order to accomplish the very goal of public education, authentic leadership is a necessity. “We want to graduate critical thinkers and agile problem solvers—kids who are creative, who can speak truth to power. Asking children to find their authentic talents and voices means that the adults should be provided the opportunity to do the same,” she says. “To make this possible, school superintendents have the opportunity to lead the way by showing up as their authentic selves.”

So what does it look like to be authentic day-to-day? How exactly should you show up for your staff and students? Here are a few things to keep top of mind as you explore your own approach to authentic leadership.

Be your own author.

Many define “authenticity” as simply being yourself every day, but to truly harness the power of authentic leadership, it’s important to understand the depth of its meaning and the impact it can have on others.

“Being authentic means being the author of your own life,” Jungalwala says. “It’s understanding that every day you have a choice—are you living an authored, created life or a default one? Either way, you’re making a choice. When I think about leadership and authenticity, I think: Are you cultivating choice for yourself? Are you cultivating that ability for folks to make a different kind of choice within your work environment?

The concept of self-authoring comes from psychologist Robert Kegan, who includes it as an integral step in each person’s self-evolution. Marcia Baxter Magolda, a distinguished professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, more plainly describes it as “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations.” Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably already familiar with the internal work required to reach a place of self-authorship. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be where you are today.

As a leader, making the choice to show up authentically every day isn’t just hard work—it’s also courageous work. This is especially true for school leadership. “One of the great ironies is that our institutions of learning should be these hotbeds of growth for students and adults alike, but we’re still in the industrial, mechanistic model of management and leadership, where the culture is to simply mitigate risks, to control, and to comply,” Jungalwala says. Fostering environments of authenticity and vulnerability, however, can break you free of traditional models that are no longer serving today’s students and teachers.

“I think people really want someone they can approach,” Bresnahan tells us. “They want someone they can trust, someone who shows empathy and vulnerability. Those are core values for me, and they really do change how people are willing to work together as an organization.”

Stay true to yourself.

According to Harvard Business Review, “authentic leaders are genuine and honest, admit error, and stay true to what they believe. When leaders are true to themselves and admit their mistakes or failures, it gives others permission to do the same, changing the norms of the workplace.” You don’t always have to know exactly what to feel or say, but knowing what you value most and using that as a compass in your leadership is the first and most essential step toward genuine authenticity. A leader who is steadfast in their convictions and trusts their internal voice is more likely to lead others down the same path. What’s more, if you make decisions based on a set of core values, then admitting doubt isn’t a display of weakness. It’s just the start of a conversation.

When we spoke with Bresnahan about leading from a set of core values, she expressed her determination to lead with conviction and truth. “This work is about empowering others and closing those achievement and opportunity gaps for all. I feel very strongly that this is my purpose, that this is my mission,” she says. “If I do anything less than that, my district needs to look for a new superintendent.”

Jungalwala says that living in a post-COVID world has made this kind of bold, self-authored leadership all the more necessary. “There’s an opportunity here, because you can’t do everything,” she says. “You have to start making choices, and ideally those choices are coming from a place of deep knowing. It’s only when you ground yourself in the authenticity of your leadership—your values, your purpose—that you’re able to lead from that place.”

Be vulnerable with purpose.

It’s easy to say “be yourself,” but much harder to put this into daily practice—especially when things aren’t going so well. Maybe you’re struggling as a parent, like Bresnahan was, or a program you championed for your schools has fallen flat. In these and most other cases, the old adage rings true: The only way out is through. You have to lean into vulnerability.

It’s a heavy word, isn’t it? Vulnerability. The most common definition certainly doesn’t sound ideal: the state of being exposed to harm. But vulnerability in leadership can be strategic as long as it has a purpose and stays true to your established core values.

When we shared Bresnahan’s story about her son with Jungalwala, she had this to say: “What’s clear is that she was vulnerable with a purpose. Ideally, you’re telling your story as a way to humanize and dramatize—because we’re humans and we love stories. Embedded in that story are challenge, choice, and outcome. Bresnahan did a beautiful job weaving that seamlessly into the point she was trying to make: that she struggles, too. And I’m sure she followed up by saying, This is what’s possible.” Jungalwala also says that when we listen to leaders, we need to feel some sense of empowerment and see a path forward. “We need to feel that hope and that possibility,” she adds.

Being vulnerable isn’t just powerful behind a podium, though. Sometimes it’s about being brave enough to ask hard questions and to reevaluate the status quo. “It sounds simple, but when everything is overwhelming, you as a leader can take a step back and say, What should we stop doing?” Jungalwala explains. “Too often change in schools is change by barnacle—just sticking another thing on another thing, and so on—and rarely is the conversation: We’ve been doing it this way for one hundred years. What should we stop doing?

Having the vulnerability to question and move away from “the way things have always been” frees you and your staff up to prioritize your most crucial work. This type of vulnerability takes self-awareness and courage in the moment, but it could impact your schools for years to come.

Inspire authenticity in others.

The most powerful aspect of authentic leadership is the way it inspires and drives others to live more authentically. It’s a huge part of why a culture of authenticity makes for happier, more empowered organizations. And for schools, a happy, engaged, and inspired staff of teachers and administrators is nothing short of life-changing for the communities who rely on them.

So how can you best inspire and encourage your employees to self-author and show up authentically? The obvious first step is modeling authenticity with every chance you get. Whether it’s a heartfelt convocation speech or a private conversation asking a staff member for their input, being a truly authentic leader means acknowledging with your actions that you can’t do it on your own. “I never do this work alone,” Bresnahan says. “It is always in collaboration and always about building capacity. It has to be connected to something greater for the community. And as steadfast as I am in my values, I am just as open and flexible to learning and growing. That’s the difference between needing to be right and wanting to learn and do what’s best.”

By openly building space for growth and learning in her leadership, Bresnahan offers her staff a level of transparency and autonomy that allows them their own chance to evolve. “When you lead that way, through a lot of experience and mistakes and faltering, you allow others to do the same,” she says. “It helps them be free to grow. Good leaders build other good leaders, and they empower others to be authentic.”

Both Bresnahan and Jungalwala acknowledged that the work of authentic leadership doesn’t come easily or quickly. Bresnahan admits that her own authenticity is an ongoing seven-year journey. But it’s clear that with a foundation of self-reflection and awareness, an open-minded devotion to your core values, and a little bit of courage, authenticity isn’t far beyond your reach.

Recently, Bresnahan’s leadership team has been studying Peter Bregman’s Leading with Emotional Courage: How to Have Hard Conversations, Create Accountability, and Inspire Action On Your Most Important Work. When we spoke, the superintendent shared her favorite quote from the book: “If you are willing to feel everything, you can do anything.” It’s true. When you prioritize authenticity in your leadership, you’re taking an emotional risk. But if you face that risk head-on, there’s no limit to the impact you can make.

Dr. Bresnahan speaks to a crowd of students. 

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