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Authenticity in Leadership

What is a leader? This was a question discussed at great length at AIDS United’s inaugural “Emerging Female Leaders Workshop” in San Juan, Puerto Rico. AIDS United (AU) invited ten women who have managerial or executive experience at community-based organizations and have demonstrated a passion and commitment to ending HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico. 

For the first time in the grant portfolio’s existence, AIDS United (AU) made a strategic investment in leadership development on the island in 2014. This philanthropic strategy was based on interviews and conversations with stakeholders in Puerto Rico over the last two years about how AU’s small private funding collaborative could support innovation on the island. We heard loud and clear that although doors need to be kept open, the next generation of community leaders also needs to be developed in order to end the AIDS epidemic.

We contracted with Strategies for Social Change to conduct the intensive two-day workshop in Spanish, and topics ranged from Self-Care, to Emotional Intelligence, Strategic Planning, and the ever-important (and un-answerable question): “What is a leader?”

As we explored themes of leadership and read various quotes that demonstrated how many different definitions exist around leadership, one of the most salient topics of the workshop that resonated with the group was the notion of “heroic” vs. “authentic” leaders.

In general terms, a “heroic” leader is a leader that makes many sacrifices, including self-care, to do it all and “go it alone.” This type of leader may not delegate appropriately or create a reliable team, which leads to one person wearing many hats, and is unsustainable both for the leader and for the organization. This topic resonated precisely because we all realized how much we had been playing heroic leaders - taking on too much, and taking too little care of ourselves. Creating ways to build a strong team and delegate responsibly along with taking opportunities for self-care were all discussed as strategies for women to become more authentic leaders. To ask each day, “How did I show up as a leader today?” provides for self-reflection and increased self-awareness and emotional intelligence – all qualities of an authentic leader.

Looking Toward Collaboration

As the conversation shifted from identifying as a heroic leader to becoming a more “authentic” leader, the word “collaboration” kept popping up. Managing the grant portfolio in Puerto Rico, I am well-aware of many structural limitations to both private dollars and creating systemic change on the local level. After years of conversations with colleagues in Puerto Rico, we also know that mistrust is unfortunately common – even among community-based organizations in our field of work. This means that many organizations, instead of working collaboratively, often times duplicate services and compete for the same small pots of money.

This is precisely why I was so pleased when I kept hearing discussion around collaboration. AU has previously tried to encourage collaboration at the local level, but the timing was never quite right for this in Puerto Rico. 

The theme of self-care and authenticity lends itself nicely to collaboration at the organizational level. Part of being an authentic leader is recognizing limits and reaching out for support or delegating responsibly. If we apply this to the organizational level, we know that ASO’s can’t do it all anymore – changes in policy and decreases in funding across the board are further impetus for some kind of collaboration.

I’m also the Program Manager for the Sector Transformation portfolio at AIDS United, where our goal is to support strategic restructuring or responsible closures to ensure that individuals at risk for or living with HIV/AIDS receive the best education and treatment possible. A critical lesson learned for us at AU, is that collaboration can’t be mandated by a funder or anyone else – it has to come from the recognition within that an organization can’t do it all, and the willingness to engage with others to eventually emerge stronger for those efforts in the end. This is why the connection of authentic leadership and collaboration seemed so clear after the workshop!

I see a bright future for all of these women as authentic leaders in the Puerto Rico HIV/AIDS community – and because I see them as the future leaders in the field, I also envision successful collaborations for community-based organizations in Puerto Rico to continue to serve those at-risk for, and living with HIV/AIDS.

Posted By: Stephanie Cruise, Program Manager, AIDS United - Thursday, October 16, 2014

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