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‘Authentic leaders’ rely on life stories

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Many leaders have overcome hard knocks and used those experiences to give meaning to their lives. Leadership starts with understanding your own life story, then testing yourself through experience and reframing the story. “Authentic leaders” use feedback that grounds them, guides them and helps reinforce their dedication to a mission.

Dr. Daniel Vasella, chairman and chief executive of Novartis, has a difficult life story. Starting with food poisoning and asthma at ages 4 and 5, Vasella first encountered a hospital stay and long separations from his parents. At age 8, he contracted tuberculosis and meningitis and was sent to a sanitarium for a year. Nurses held him down during lumbar punctures.

Then a new doctor arrived who actually took the time to explain things. The child asked whether a nurse could hold his hand instead of holding him down. That time, it didn’t hurt. “These human gestures of forgiveness, caring and compassion made a deep impression on me and on the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Vasella still had some hard times ahead. His sister died when he was 10, and his father three years later. His mother had to work far from home and only came home every three weeks.

At age 20, Vasella started medical school and only then started coming to grips with his childhood. He realized he wanted to help more people than he could as a clinical doctor, so he began searching for a leadership position, which led him to pharmaceuticals. In 1996, he became chief executive of Novartis. Drawing on the medical role models of his youth, he has tried to build a corporate culture based on compassion, competence and competition.

Lesson: Vasella resembles other leaders who report drawing inspiration, strength and purpose from their personal experiences. To develop your own basis for leadership, ask yourself the questions at right.

—Adapted from “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean and Diana Mayer, Harvard Business Review.

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