Leadership and Folk Wisdom

The literature on leadership is distinctive in two respects—its volume, and its level of generality. Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to glaze over when I can’t figure out if the subject being discussed is a verb or a noun.

So it’s interesting when you run across a piece on leadership that is clear in its point of view. Even moreso when it blends two normally disparate realms—say, Harvard Business Review and, for lack of a better term, folk wisdom.

The February, 2007 issue of HBR contains “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” by Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean and Diana Mayer. Bill George is former CEO of Medtronic, now at HBS, and author of Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value. All authors are now academics.

The juxtapositions are mine, but I like to think you’ll think to like them.


You do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a leader. Leadership emerges from your life story. HBR

We are human beings, not human doings. Folk wisdom.


When the 75 members of Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Advisory Council were asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was nearly unanimous: self-awareness. HBR

The unexamined life is not worth living. FW

People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else. HBR

Be what you is, not what you is not. FW

Knowing their authentic selves requires the courage and honesty to open up and examine their experiences. As they do so, leaders become more humane and willing to be vulnerable. HBR

Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now. FW

Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to developing yourself. HBR

If you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know much. FW

Being authentic means maintaining a sense of self no matter where you are. HBR

No matter where you go—there you are. FW


Authentic leaders realize that they have to be willing to listen to feedback—especially the kind they don’t want to hear. HBR

The truth shall set you free. FW

Authentic leaders are constantly aware of the importance of staying grounded. HBR

If you’ve got one foot in yesterday, and another in tomorrow, you’re well positioned to piss on today. FW


Intrinsic motivations are congruent with your values and are more fulfilling than extrinsic motivations. HBR

About playing music—if it’s not play, stop. If it’s not music, stop. Don’t practice scales, play music. Don’t work at it, choose it. FW

[authentic leaders]…see themselves not as passive observers of their lives but rather as individuals who can develop self-awareness from their experiences. HBR

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. FW

Superior results over a sustained period of time is the ultimate mark of an authentic leader. HBR

No one writes on their tombstone, I should’ve stayed a few more hours at the office. FW

0 replies
  1. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – I’ve thought a lot over the years about leadership vs. authority. Often those in positions of authority confuse having a higher place on the totem pole with "leadership," and often those lower down on the totem pole confusingly look to those with positional authority for leadership. As you/FW and HBR point out, leadership is about personal characteristics (which I’ve always thought of as personal authority). Best for leaders to have both positional and personal authority, but if you have to pick one over the other, personal authority is better.

    With respect to the unexamined life not being worth living, I’ve always loved the comment by Peter DeVries (or Woody Allen or Robert Fulghum): "…the examined life is no picnic either."

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Let’s see…be yourself, conscious and self-aware, honest, authentic, come from integrity, i.e., your core values, have your eyes wide open, not wide shut, be willing to engage and listen, be interested in others, be self-disciplined….sounds like a hip-pocket guide for just walking the planet in  a state of well-be-ing and, then, by the way, you might be a leader, sales person, clerk, concierge, priest, poker player, cab driver, zoo keeper, sportsman or woman, president, writer, university professor…

    More interesting, for me, how some folks need experts at Harvard to tell them how to human and humane in their relationships, how to "be" and  "do";  otherwise, what?, they may not "believe" it or practice it if it doesn’t come from the "experts"?

    To me, it’s curious how how some need a "technology" just to be conscious, just to be human. Hmmm.


  3. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Charlie – Well, Folk Wisdom is certainly easier to digest than HBR-speak. I love the advice on "being authentic". (Note to self: work on being authentic today.) As Peter notes in his comment, isn’t this the price of admission to life?

    As for the "unexamined life not worth living." A mention of this always reminds me of the reply: "The examined life is no picnic, either." I’ve seen it attributed to Peter DeVries and Woody Allen. In any case, it always makes me smile.


  4. Jeff Cullen
    Jeff Cullen says:

    Frank  Zappa said it many years ago, perhaps not eloquently, but still valid:

    " Do you know what you are?
    You are what you is
    You is what you am
    (A cow don’t make ham…)
    You ain’t what you’re not
    So see what you got
    You are what you is
    An’ that’s all it ’tis "

    Perhaps a tad obscure, but with further examination you’ll find Zappa fits every criteria for true Leadership.


  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    It doesn’t get much better than when you can link Harvard Business Review with Frank Zappa and Woody Allen. 

    And, for anyone who didn’t pick it up, the "be what you is…" quote is from Mr. Wizard–not the TV scientist who died recently, but Mr. Wizard from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show.

    As Peter seems to suggest, with that trio, what more validation can Harvard provide?  What more validation is necessary?

  6. Lark
    Lark says:

    I’ve found that being authentic requires one to admit that no greater authority – or expert or teacher or adviser – in life exists… save one’s own person.

    At the same time, by admitting one’s flaws… from the outset of any interaction… involving signs, symbols, words, images, feelings or perceptions – whether personal or interpersonal – keeps one grounded to the evidence of our common frailties.

    Because I’m naturally averse to getting caught up in dramas… schemes… programs… systems… empirical points of view…  or authoritative stances… manufactured by others, I’m also mistrustful of words-to-the-wise, the holier-than-thou, and man-made machines.

    All of which makes me empathetic to those neediest of people – including, but especially, myself.

    Maybe tomorrow I’ll throw these words up in the air and come up with something better…

    … Because who knows what fun can be had by throwing caution to the wind? 


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