Being Yourself is a Competitive Advantage

January 30, 2023
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“I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.”

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man, a book that captured so well the diversity of the American experience, was published more than 70 years ago. Despite the time that’s passed since, its story of identity, leadership, and race is no less relevant today. For these reasons, it’s the favorite book of this month’s guest on our Movers & Shapers podcast, Kenny Gardner, chief people officer at DaVita Kidney Care. 

I was inspired and grateful to speak to Kenny about what influenced his leadership journey. 

One of the things I wanted to explore with Kenny was the shaping of his identity as a leader and what he’s learned along the way. Developing a clear idea of how you want to show up as a leader in the workplace is hard for anyone, and the task is even harder when you acknowledge you’re an outlier. Kenny spoke to me about how his racial identity, socio-economic background, and life experiences are woven into his unique leadership style. 

Here are a few takeaways from our conversation. 

  • Adaptability is well-known to be a core leadership competency. In Kenny’s case, this was instilled early in his life as a child in a military family that moved internationally and later as a black executive in a predominantly white work environment. Adapt so that you can connect with people but, advises Kenny, don’t become so adaptable that you lose sight of you.  
  • Find yourself amid the expectations of others. Being adaptable is a double-edged sword, and so to become an authentic leader, you need to define how you want to show up and stay true to that commitment. Leaders who are different due to their heritage, background, or experiences can risk getting lost and watered down to a generally accepted version of themselves. 
  • Release what no longer serves you. Leadership is a journey, and it’s necessary to let go of things that perhaps served you well in the past but no longer do. Part of the leadership experience is learning to recognize what parts of your identity come from trauma or from having to survive. You’ll need to let some of these things go in order to let new things in.  
  • Authenticity in leadership brings passion, uniqueness, and this: when being yourself becomes a competitive advantage. In Kenny’s experience, bringing the best of his integrated identities to life is how people connect with him. We’re all the sum of our diverse experiences, and that is incredibly valuable in leadership roles. 
  • Build bridges for others. Building bridges for others who will follow in your footsteps means making changes so that more people will get a fair shot at success. By building an organization that you want to work for and that you’re proud to leave behind for others, leaders can create more inclusive workplaces. 

I found it inspiring to hear Kenny’s story and how he found his own identity amid the expectations of others. Listen to the full episode now.

RHR’s Movers & Shapers Podcast

For more than 75 years, RHR’s mission has remained unchanged: to shape leaders who shape the world. On our podcast, we interview leaders on what has shaped them and their organizations. View the back catalogue and listen to past episodes.

Cristina Jimenez is a talent, leadership, and culture expert with 20 years of industry experience. She is a senior partner and the global head of RHR International’s Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging practice and has been instrumental in the firm’s own cultural transformation.