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 Stefanie M. Falconi. Stefanie is a policy entrepreneur, speaker and consultant on climate resilience. She is also a fellow at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils. As the co-founder of Instituto Limite, Stefanie helps business and government respond to climate risks.
Stefanie shared with me how she discovered her own brand of authentic leadership and how curiosity has helped shape her career. (Our conversation is edited slightly for length and clarity.)
What brought you to your specific career path?
I grew up in Ecuador, in the foothills of the Andean Mountains. My childhood was filled with adventure and awe as I explored my grandfather’s farm. Nature was my first laboratory. This is how I found my place in science early in my career. With time, and thanks to some unique opportunities, I discovered how tech and science could be applied to policy. I spent a summer at The Earth Institute, Columbia University, as a research assistant at the time the UN Development goals were being crafted. I got to see first hand how scientists and engineers worked to lift people and communities out of poverty. That’s how I ended up pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering to help improve decision- and policy-making related to climate change and sustainable development. Currently, I reside in Brazil innovating at this intersection of science and policy, through my role as founder of Instituto Limite, as a fellow at the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Agile Governance, and through various talks and engagements as a policy entrepreneur.
You are a #Firestarter, a person who is a changemaker and a person of great influence. If you could start a movement for social good, what would it be? Leaders turn moments into movements.
If this pandemic has revealed anything, I hope it’s our individual responsibility and our collective strength. The enormity of global challenges like climate change and pandemics, to name just two, is that they leave people paralyzed because they feel as if the problem is too big for any one individual to make a difference. And yet, we are not powerless – in the sea of challenges we can still have agency. The best defense against COVID can be summed up as human behaviours: collaboration and empathy. The most powerful actions at the moment are 1) quarantine and social distancing, 2) wear a mask. So a lesson I took away from the pandemic is that our concerted individual and local efforts are not insignificant. I see this also as crucial as we build responses to climate change and other 21st century challenges. Even with technology and innovation, we still rely on changing behaviors at a global scale. I hope others can feel empowered to take action.
Who is a #Firestarter who has influenced your career?
My mom! She’s braver than she will ever admit, but I got a lot of my fire from her. She never told me this, but I can imagine that, as a single mom in Ecuador, her dreams for herself and for her future were bigger than the limited roles demanded from her. She was about my age when she immigrated to the United States alone with two young children and had to raise us while trying to fulfill her own career aspirations. She had to give up a lot, but she never gave up on her ideal of a more perfect future for us. I stand on her shoulders and those of many women who sought to redefine the place of a woman. The day I became a mom I began to understand the extent of my mother’s courage. I was able to imagine how scary it must have been for her to leave safe harbor. But her hard work and perseverance opened the possibility for me to develop into the person I am today.
How do you describe or define authentic leadership?
Working on the best version of you or your movement even when no one is watching. Your only adversary is the past version of you. I learned this from my love of sports and years as an amateur athlete. The analogy here is that your performance on game or race day reflects what you did every day leading up to that. The same applies to your leadership. There is no one tip or trick. What defines you as an athlete — or a leader — is the work you do every single day to prepare for the high stakes moments.
Building the best version comes from showing up every day with the conviction that, even when no one is watching, your efforts matter. With so much of what I build as an entrepreneur, it may take months or years to see the results. This reminds me of all the athletic training that I would have rather skipped: swims in choppy waters, running in snow or sleet. But here is my point: the ultimate goal was not about a medal or a race, the ultimate goal was a better version of me.
For me, leadership came in unexpected ways, like knowing what to do in moments of ambivalence or taking a stand when no one else wanted to. It’s been good to know that I’ve prepared myself the best that I can, and that there is always room for more training.
Have you always been an authentic leader?
It’s definitely morphed over the years. My idea of a leader growing up was influenced by a very different place and time than I am now. I see the traits of leaders I admire today and their ability to move people with a vision rather than command and to lead by hope rather than fear. That’s the contrast between soft and hard power. However, my leadership style since I can remember has been to roll up my sleeves and build with people. In that sense, I have always approached leadership with a sense of how can I serve and how can my skills be useful.
How do you remain authentic but not cross the line into being unprofessional?It’s been important in my personal and professional trajectory to set boundaries. To know when something is beyond my reach and I either need to say no or ask for help. Having worked in primarily male-dominated fields, asking for help was foreign to me because I thought it was up to me to prove something, but now I understand that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but a part of being human. Setting boundaries also means respecting boundaries and being consistent with the principles you practice. People are more open to follow your lead if your values and principles are transparent.
What is the most interesting story about authentic leadership that has happened to you?
One day, traveling alone in India, I went to a yoga class that was recommended to me. It so happened that the class was canceled for the day, and all the lights were off. Sheepishly, I rang the bell anyway to ask when it would reopen, as my trip was coming to an end. The attendant, perhaps sensing my disappointment and anxiety, asked if I wished to talk to the teacher. As I entered, the Sikh teacher was sitting on the floor, his big smile, long beard and turban making him seem almost out of a storybook. He signaled me to sit down and said: “Come in. Tell me, what are you doing here?”
It wasn’t clear if he meant here in India, on this journey or here in the studio. The first thing that came to mind was to share my current dilemma and frustration with life. Somewhat uncharacteristic of me, I opened up without restraint. He listened quietly and then paused before saying: “Oh, I see, cursiority led you here. You’ve been on this journey for nearly a lifetime to discover who you are meant to be.” Tears ran down my cheeks. I had gone through my whole life trying to explain who I was and where I was going, and the simple answer was that I never stopped being that curious child. I grew up, but I did not cease asking questions and moving mountains to get to answers. My takeaway: Curiosity led me here. It has been the force behind most of my major decisions, and the thrill of exploration is how I keep a beginner’s mind. It keeps me humble and grounded.
Can you talk more about how you keep yourself grounded?
I try to do something outside my expertise or comfort zone every week. It may be working with my hands or with a new collaborator. My daughter is also a reminder to stay grounded. As any working parent in this pandemic might tell you, this is as real as it gets. You may be a CEO or president, she does not bow down to titles, but children also provide moments of magic. She is a reminder that there is a lot I still don’t know and have not experienced in this world. Breaking routines is also a way to get out of my head and into my body. Much of my work can seem purely abstract, so I try to get out into nature and work my hands. Having a child gives me a reason to see the world with new eyes.
What advice would you give to readers about how to create an authentic workplace or team culture?
People follow what you do more than what you say. People emulate you and your work ethic — for example, working weekends and taking no breaks. You will set the culture of your team or organization with your actions.
What are five steps that each of us can take to support those around us who want to become more authentic?
1. Develop self-awareness and radical self-acceptance. Start from a place of knowing and understanding your strengths and limitations.
2. Provide psychologically safe environments for others to express themselves.
3. Lead by example, remembering to give more than you take
4. Reward curiosity rather than success. Don’t focus so much on outcomes so you can encourage others to pursue wild ideas. If you only reward success, people fear failure.
5. Develop critical thinking.
To add a little more about critical thinking, always ask yourself: “How do I know what I know? Who said so?” This will help you cut through the chatter and tap into your deeper knowing. For me, this happens through sports and meditation. We spend so much time looking outside for validation. As social animals, this is biologically wired in us. But those external demands or pressures can often come at the expense of what is uniquely yours and for you to conquer. It is a work in progress, and it took me years to unlearn, but don’t let others determine what makes you special.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Why did it resonate with you so much?
“The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” by Walter Isaacson. It tells the story of how the digital age came to be and breaks the myth that innovation comes as a single eureka moment via one individual. It’s often the work of teams that are given the right working environments and conditions. There are so many amazing stories that it’s hard to pick just one. I resonated with the central argument of the book, and it helped me think of innovation as a product of an ecosystem rather than just people or just ideas. So I have strived to build communities that value this.
I also read the book while at SingularityU’s Global Solutions Program at NASA Ames Campus in Mountain View, California. It was a 10 week program, and I’d take long bike rides by the water passing by Google and the many places central to the storyline, so the book really resonated with me. I would immerse myself in the stories as I read and I was pregnant at the time. So when my daughter was born I named her Ada, after Ada Byron Lovelace, who opens and closes the book. Ada was the first computer programmer. More interestingly to me, as the daughter of poet Lord Byron, she had an poetic outlook that helped her look beyond numbers. I hope my daughter can bring an appreciation for the humanities and a multidisciplinary outlook to life and work.
What is your favorite “life lesson” quote”? Do you have a story about how it was relevant in your life? (NOTE this is actually a single quote from the same poem “In your light”)
I tend to default to Sufi poet Rumi for life’s wisdom. Here is one of my favorite:
Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.
My childhood was filled with exploration that nourished my imagination. But growing up in South America, it did not take long to pick up on the subtle, and not-so-subtle, expectation that girls’ presence ought to be small and quiet. Always polite in their opinion. The message I got growing up was that I needed permission to act or think differently. It took a lot of years of deconstruction to go against the grain. This is also another reason I named my daughter Ada. I didn’t want her to go through any of that. From the moment she utters her name, I want her to know her experiences and opinions are valuable. She need not ask permission to be different.
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