Now more than ever, we need authentic leaders — those that embrace the fullness of who they are so that they can use all of their gifts and talents to create unique movements for good.
To help us all tap into our potential for this kind of leadership, I’m sharing a series of conversations with some of the most authentic leaders I know. And today I’m featuring Angela Cusack. Angela is a nationally recognized Master Certified Coach who is skilled in working with multicultural leadership teams and global organizations. In addition to her own business, Igniting Success®, Angela is a business advisor to several organizations. As a speaker and facilitator, Angela engages audiences in provocative conversations that produce new insights and discoveries.
During our interview, Angela told me about a single conversation that changed her life and how she has evolved as an authentic leader. (Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.)
What brought you to your specific career path?
I am a child of Appalachia. Generally speaking, an undereducated and somewhat undermotivated population lives into what they already know and not beyond. Yet, for me, it was in the fields where I ran freely with little regard to what wasn’t possible that my journey began.
I appreciate the way I grew up. It taught me to be a servant leader before servant leadership was a thing. It encouraged me to question mainstream traditions and ways of thinking and to challenge deeply held beliefs and values about religion, politics, social responsibility and acceptance of others.
Post college (yes, I was one of the lucky ones), I packed my bags, and off to Boston I went. Somehow, at the age of 21 with no prior experience (unless you count the cows, pigs and chickens I managed growing up), I landed a position where I led a team of 25.
Over my 25-year corporate career, I moved from Boston to Florida to Richmond, each time hoping to land that perfect job where my purpose and passion intersected. I soon learned that hope was no strategy, and neither were the words that whispered in my head: “Work hard and you’ll get noticed.” Nope. I had to pave my path if I truly wanted to realize my potential and zero in on the intersection of purpose and passion.
If being a new mom, in a new city, in a new job, with a focus on giving back to the community I lived in wasn’t enough, I also decided to attend grad school. All the while, I would go back to the farm multiple times a year to help my family plant and harvest crops and, as time passed, to also take care of my parents, who were quickly aging prematurely.
Two years later — with many miles of road behind me from business travel, and with a beautiful daughter in tow at every Junior League and civic event I attended —I graduated with a master’s in human and organizational learning. As I look back now, exactly 20 years ago, I realize that it was the combination of these experiences that changed my trajectory, not simply the formal education I received.
Exploration and experimentation have always come naturally to me, so I wrote a business case and ultimately created a position that had previously not existed. The results — tremendous growth, improved employee and client satisfaction —spoke for themselves. This caught the eye of the holding company, and, within two years, my role had been modeled throughout the entire organization. I realized then that my gift was showing others how to find their intersection between purpose and passion while helping the people and organizations prosper.
I left full-time employment with no idea of what was next. It was my choice to step up and out, as my values and those of the company no longer aligned. For the first time in a long time, I felt free to reconnect to the girl that ran through the fields.
Just before leaving my executive position, I was interviewing for the board of a local nonprofit which I had volunteered with over years. The chairman asked about my work. I replied, “Well, in three weeks I’ll be without a job.” I then explained how I helped executive and senior leaders improve their leadership and that of their teams, translating to increased profitability, improved performance, employee engagement and client loyalty. He hired me on the spot. He was my first client. Once others learned of my planned departure, I had four more CEOs ask if I would work with them and their teams. Igniting Success was officially launched. Since then, I’ve worked with entrepreneurs, CEOs and their teams, and other coaches all over the globe.
How do you describe or define authentic leadership?
Authenticity arises when we make our invisible visible — when our values and beliefs shine through in all we do and say. It’s the alignment in our words and deeds. We “lead as we are” not as others want or expect us to lead. We remain true to our inner voice, and we lean in, even when it is uncomfortable. And we speak, make decisions and act in a straight line with our truth. It can seem risky, but when we are living and leading from the inside out, people know it. That creates trust and builds safety for others to express who they truly are.
Have you always been an authentic leader?
I want to say yes, but in reality, I know there are many times I have not been authentic. But that was part of my journey of discovering who I am. Being authentic takes courage, and, at times, I fell backward into the corporate leadership abyss of going along to get along instead of falling forward in learning how to bring my full and best self to the game.
Being authentic may come easier for me than it does for most, especially those who are marginalized, as I already “fit” the dominant image of leadership in organizations where I have worked. My white privilege, which I didn’t recognize until a few years ago, kept me from living and leading as authentically as I could have. I was blind to how my beliefs and values were not taking care of what I cared most about, which was to create equitable organizational environments where everyone could flourish. Today, I push back against CEOs, business owners and their teams when they claim to be working toward more diversity, but they are not doing the internal work to break down systems that privilege themselves and the company and to become culturally humble and inclusive.
How do you remain authentic while not crossing the line into becoming unprofessional?
I live by the adage that to earn respect I must give respect first. Learning the cultural norms of a community, organization or even country allows me to respectfully and authentically share who I am without many concerns for how I will be perceived. To do this well, I do my homework first. I build my competency and increase my sensitivities that allow me to expand my self-awareness and ability to regulate my natural tendencies. I frequently check in and learn from others as I intentionally build strong professional and productive relationships.
What’s the most interesting story from your career involving authentic leadership?
This story is about how defensiveness is often a cover-up for our fear of others finding out we aren’t perfect.
I’ve met my fair share of executives who proudly label themselves as “tough,” “exterminators,” “not afraid to break things” and so on. The people around them suffer.
I was once recruited by the CEO and president of an organization to work with everyone on the executive team. During my initial meeting with one executive, our pleasantries quickly shifted into an abrasive, hardcore “let’s test this coach” conversation. Game on.
About 10 minutes in, I abruptly stopped him and asked, “So is this it? The way you lead?”
Silence. Then, a response.
“I know I am an (expletive)”, he said. “I take pride in being this way. Everyone knows that this is just how I am.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, I’ll tell you this: You won’t last here or anywhere else long term.”
I got up to leave. As I approached the door, he said, “Stop. Come back.”
I sat back down and listened to his story about needing to be righteous in his leadership. As I left that initial meeting, I was struck by the power of calling him into a conversation that illuminated the “space between” what he believed and the impact that belief had on others. Over the years as we worked together, he reinvented his leadership brand by being vulnerable with himself and with others.
What advice would you give to readers about creating an authentic workplace or team culture?
· Be transparent and encourage transparency. As you share your truth, wonder what assumptions, biases and beliefs underpin that truth and speak to them. Invite others to do the same without judgment.
· Admit it when you stub your toe. Making mistakes and learning from them is what it means to be human. When leaders share their missteps with their teams, they implicitly give others permission to do the same.
· Listen with generosity and speak with kindness. Conversations can be both direct and compassionate. It isn’t an either/or. Invite compassion while seeking clarity and understanding and while holding yourself and others accountable for the commitments that have been made.
· Be inquisitive and reflective. Spending time with questions and in reflection is critical to our wellbeing and our success. It provides us an opportunity to cultivate our inner senses and intuition. Doing this with a team is incredibly empowering. Consider reserving the last 15 minutes of every team meeting to reflect on “how we did as a team.” The focus is on creating a psychological safe space for each member to bring their authentic selves through the sharing of their experience.
What book made a significant impact on you? Why did it resonate with you so much?
“The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield. This book is about understanding and banishing the resistance that plays out in our lives as fear, self-doubt and procrastination.
The wisdom in these pages has helped me to live a wholehearted life and aided me in helping leaders move through their own self-imposed limitations. Success ignites when we intentionally and mindfully do our work where our passion and purpose intersect. Inspiration comes as we simply begin. If we wait for inspiration to find us, then we will be waiting a very long time.
Resistance always shows up in a big way when something is very important to me. That has been true in writing my book. I found many reasons to not begin. When I went back to the book, as I do often, I leaned in and trusted my inner voice to just sit down at my desk with a blank document staring back at me. I reminded myself that I wouldn’t know my own voice if I didn’t begin, even though I didn’t have a clue what I would write, I began, and, as I did, the inspiration flowed and has continued to flow. Now I am on my way to becoming an author!
What are five steps that each of us can take to become more authentic?
1. Boost your self-awareness. Understand what you care about most and why. When we do the real work and dive in, leaders discover what they’ve been seeking all along but didn’t know it: the intersection of their purpose and passion.
2. Turn intention to action. It isn’t good enough to rest on your good intentions. If you mean well, plan well and act well. Having good intentions is no excuse for not taking full responsibility for how your behaviors may have impacted someone else.
3. Be fully present and connect with the heart. Turn down your internal chatter and remove external distractions, such as message alerts on your computer and phone. Resist the urge to multitask.
4. Align your leadership brand. A big obstacle to authenticity is a strong need to maintain a certain image. Oftentimes our perception of what it means to be an executive is too narrow, and that affects our behaviors in ways that do not align with who we really are. Take the time to understand how others see you and why. Seeking 360o feedback will shed light on how your words, behaviors and actions are viewed in contrast to how you experience yourself.
5. Ask for support. As you work on becoming a more authentic leader, practicing new behaviors will feel uncomfortable, especially if you work in a culture where it’s OK to have veiled elephants stomping around the room. It’s key to have an executive coach and others around you who can encourage you to stick with it and support you.
What resources would you suggest for learning to live more authentically?
I would highly recommend making a yearlong investment in yourself and work with a coach. Coaching is a very powerful experience, involving the development of new possibilities, new levels of achievement and personal growth. ICF’s #ExperienceCoaching is an invaluable resource for finding a coach and learning about the impacts of coaching.
What is your favorite “life lesson” quote? How has it been relevant in your life?
It’s better to be in the arena, getting stomped by the bull, than to be up in the stands or out in the parking lot.
Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
For decades, I stood in the stands watching the game as it unfolded. I believed seeing life in this way allowed me to provide better advice and gain insight in my professional life. Yet, as I advanced in my career, I arrived at a crossroads: “Play their game, or get in the game and change the rules.” From that point forward, I’ve been in the arena — influencing, learning, getting dirty, rising above and elevating my contributions in the world by sharing my voice.
Who is a #Firestarter that has influenced your career?
C.T. Hill is a legend in the banking industry, as well as in the Richmond, Virginia, community. He is a humble, inspiring leader who moves with ease as he models the behaviors he seeks from others. He leads by being visible, verbal and passionate. He is a man of faith, integrity, equality, inclusion and transparency.
During a regular one-on-one meeting, C.T. asked me a question that changed my trajectory: “What would it be like if you were known as the most extraordinary and sought-after coach on the planet?” The question stopped me cold. A huge smile started in my heart and then slowly moved to my face. I responded, “I don’t know, but I do know I like how it sounds.” C.T. saw something in me that I had not. He inspired me to step onto a path where my passion and purpose are realized — where I partner with people and organizations to achieve prosperity for everyone involved.
How do you keep yourself grounded?
I spend time in reflection, writing and being on the mat. I stay connected in conversation with those who grant me the space to create, innovate and even reinvent myself. I enjoy running, cycling, golfing, traveling and seeing the countryside on our Harley-Davidson. I love exploring and experimenting and making things up from nothing. I find grace and peace in both being centered and grounded, as well as when I am not. There is tremendous learning on the spectrum.
How can readers follow you on social media?