Real Leaders

Why Being Bright, Bold, and Real Will Set You Free

Yesterday I met with Melissa, a female CEO of a large California health plan. Business is good. It turns out people really do want health insurance if it’s well-designed, fairly priced and enables you to get high quality medical care when you need it.

Melissa is a force of nature. I have known her for over 15 years. Before she became CEO she had been a Chief Marketing Officer and startup founder. She’s had impressive successes and daunting challenges. Yet, no matter what, I have always found her to be radically consistent. She is creative, caring, enthusiastic and downright brilliant. When I say brilliant it’s not just that she’s smart. She’s actually BRIGHT. She literally lights up a room with her positive–constructive personality. This is all highly valued when things are going well but her brightness makes the most difference when she is a lighthouse in a storm.

As I was thinking about the impact of Melissa’s powerful persona I recalled a marketing campaign that Gap brand launched while I was consulting with them. It was called Bright, Bold and Real. Gap hadn’t done much advertising and it’s clothes we’re pretty boring. The new leader of the brand was committed to brighten up and freshen up Gap’s products. Their marketing people spent a lot of time getting to the core of qualities that attract human beings. Their campaign worked as long as they stayed with the Bright, Bold and Real mantra. In time they left that behind and now they are struggling for relevance again.

But I don’t want to talk about jeans and t-shirts. I want to talk about Melissa’s SMART leadership power. What Melissa does is consistently inspire people to give the best parts of themselves to achieve their common goals. Of course she holds people accountable. But she has built a culture of self-accountability.  People really want to do their best all the time. The reason they do is because she is a hyper-potent combination of competence and authenticity that is motivational Redbull.

Here’s what I mean:

BRIGHT: Leaders must be competent at articulating an inspiring vision that will make life better for both customers and employees if they are going to be followed. Someone who is BRIGHT has a natural enthusiasm for doing something much better than others are doing. Lots of entrepreneurs are dim rather than bright. That’s because they’re always thinking of how much money they’re going to make or their exit plan. BRIGHT leaders are inspiring because they want to make things better, not just themselves, richer. You don’t have to be a formal leader to be BRIGHT. If your prime motive is to help others live better lives; be happier, healthier and truly enriched by your attention and your strengths…then you are BRIGHT.  You are a faucet in a world of drains.

BOLD: Great leaders are bold. They promote original ideas and aren’t limited by the expectations or demands of small-thinking critics. All the people we most admire are bold. Not just the great inventors like Edison, or the great dreamers like Disney or the great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs. We also admire our friends when they are bold.  We admire our children when they are bold. We admire anybody who wants to make a positive difference and won’t take “No” for an answer. We admire people who proclaim their commitment and persist through setbacks. We certainly don’t admire the critics or the people standing on the sidelines shouting “I told you so.” We love to follow bold and courageous leaders who have great ideas to make the future better.  Maybe it’s time for each of us to look at our lives and ask ourselves “What should we be boldly standing for right now?” What is the difficulty or opportunity that is before you that is whispering for your sustained commitment? Sometimes the boldest thing you can do is to keep on keeping on. Other times it is to stand up and announce the change that’s necessary and thrust yourself forward in a new direction… in spite of your doubts.

REAL: The leaders we trust are REAL. It’s what got Abraham Lincoln elected President when we were facing Civil War. His primary qualification was his bone-deep integrity. He was first and always, Honest Abe. Today, more than ever we are longing for leaders that are real and relationships that are real. Authenticity maybe an overused word but it’s what we long for. No one expects you to be flawless. So you don’t have to be fake to be valued or approved of. What makes our imperfections irrelevant is not trying to hide them but to own them. Not in a proud way. Not in a “deal with it” way. But rather with humility and a desire to improve. As long as we remain humble about our flaws they actually become the force that binds us together in the intimacy of mutual vulnerability.

Even as I write this, my thoughts go back to my CEO friend Melissa. I stand by my description of her. She is Bright, Bold and Real. I believe that these are the qualities of personal emotional liberation. It’s when you are finally free to be who you are and to turn up your volume.  I believe that’s what you have been born for.


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