Your Greatest Passions

By Dan Coughlin

It’s my belief that any person can make a significant difference in an organization. In order for that to happen, the person needs to know his or her assets for making a significant difference. In this article, my focus is on your passions. While your passions are intangible, they are a very real and critically important part of your ability to truly matter at work. I don’t think you can consistently make a significant difference in your work life unless you find a way to pour your passions into your work.

Your passions are what sustain you. They fuel you and energize you. You’re not going to consistently make a significant difference without having something that motivates you.

However, what drives one person to significance is far different than for another person. The key is for you to understand your three greatest passions. I’m going to explain thirteen passions that I have seen motivate some of the best performers I’ve worked with or studied. They are rewards, results, the journey, the dream, the purpose, creating something extraordinary, being a part of a team, leading a team, behind the scenes difference-maker, out-in-front leader, responsibility for others, sense of accomplishment, and contribution.

After you consider each of them I want you to be honest with yourself and write down your three greatest passions. The key going forward is to make sure your passions are being fed on a regular basis. If your passions are different than these thirteen, then write down your unique passions.


If rewards are your fuel, then you are passionate about your paycheck and the ways you can reward yourself with it. You want the nicest house and the fanciest car and a vacation home. You want the biggest title and the nicest office and the best recognition your company has to offer. These are what motivate you, and you’re not at all embarrassed to admit it. You like showing off your new boat or the monster tv you just purchased. You’ve earned them, and you want to enjoy them.


Results trip your trigger if you love to look back on the past quarter and feel the deep sense of satisfaction in what has been achieved. You measure your progress every day toward the objective you are trying to meet. When the actual results roll in, you get emotionally involved. You either party or you get depressed if the results aren’t what you want. The next day you are driven again by the desire to deliver better numbers on the next score card.

The Journey

The journey is your driver if what wakes you up in the morning is the actual doing of the work. You love what you do in good times and in bad times, and you can’t imagine doing anything else.

The Dream

You have a vision in your mind that you want to achieve in your lifetime, and that dream keeps you going day after day. The results can be good or bad, and you’re not thinking about the short-term rewards. Your focus is on the dream. Is there an ultimate result for your career that spurs you on every day?

The Purpose

Is there an underlying purpose that drives you every day? Is there something specific that you have dedicated your life to that makes you want to do your very best every day? Is there a purpose beyond making money where you feel part of something bigger than just yourself? Is that what’s driving you?

Creating Something Extraordinary

Do you want to make something truly amazing? Something that is completely breathtaking? Something that will change the future for lots of people? Is that what wakes you up in the morning and keeps you going all day?

Being a Part of a Team

Is your favorite thing to be a part of a great team where everyone is working together to support one another toward fulfilling a meaningful purpose or achieving a meaningful objective? Do you love being a team member as opposed to the manager of the team? Is your passion to play a significant role as a part of a greater whole?

Leading a Team

Perhaps your ideal role is to lead a team, to go out and identify the talents and attitudes you want on your team, to recruit those people, and to build an extraordinary work group for the long term.

Behind the Scenes Difference-Maker

Maybe what really gets you going is to create magic behind the scenes where no one knows the role you played in generating incredible success, except those few people who worked side-by-side with you. You love the feeling of being able to move from project to project in almost an invisible way where no one interferes with your work, and the results of that work speak for itself.

Out-In-Front Leader

If your passion is to be the out-in-front leader, then you are driven to lead an entire organization where you become the face and the voice of the organization, and where everyone from customers to shareholders to the media know that you are the person running the show. This desire to lead an entire company is what fuels you to keep working long, hard hours.

Responsibility for Others

You see your responsibility to your spouse, your children, your parents, and your community as the most important aspects of your life. You work hard at work to be able to provide for other people. You’re not focused on your title or material goods. You are driven to make sure that your aging parents are well taken care of and that your kids get a great education. You are willing to invest your time and energy into your community because you feel a sense of duty to others.

Sense of Accomplishment

The best feeling for you is to lay in bed at night and know that meaningful stuff got done that day. You hate the feeling of spinning your wheels and feeling that nothing worthwhile was actually achieved that day. You love to move projects forward, and you hate listening to whining and complaining and a victim mentality. What’s driving you is the belief that something really good will be accomplished today.


What matters to you is feeling that you mattered today. You have to feel that you contributed in some way at a meeting or in a private conversation or in an email or at a volunteer event. It drives you crazy to sit in a meeting for two hours and to have contributed nothing. You gain energy when you sense that you are actually adding value to other people in some way.

Identify Your Three Greatest Passions

That’s thirteen passions people get energized by. No one gets fuel from all of them. What I want you to do is to review the list and identify your three greatest passions. This will help you in the future to place your time and effort in a way where you will have the energy to make a significant difference for your organization. Here are the passions to choose from:



The Journey

The Dream

The Purpose

Creating Something Extraordinary

Being a Part of a Team

Leading a Team

Behind the Scenes Difference-Maker

Out-In-Front Leader

Responsibility for Others

Sense of Accomplishment


What three greatest passions for yourself did you come up with? Write those down. If your passions are not on this list, then write in your unique passions. This is another important part of your assets for significance.

About Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin works with business owners, executives, and managers on an individual and group basis to improve business performance way in a sustainable way. As a business keynote speaker, executive coach, seminar leader, and management consultant, Dan Coughlin teaches The Any Person Mindset. It is based on his belief that any person can make a significant difference in an organization, but no one is born with the traits necessary to make a significant difference. These are learned thinking traits. Visit his free Business Leadership Idea Center at


The Strongest Characteristics of Your Character

By Dan Coughlin

People go to work to make money and to make a difference.

Money is important. It’s very important.

Working to make a difference is also important. It’s very, very important.

Trying to make a significant difference is how you fuel yourself over the long term. Everyone wants to make money. That’s not a differentiator. Working to make a significant difference is what can help you to constantly improve and innovate and try new things.

I believe there are five assets every person has to draw on to make a significant difference in his or her organization that are far more important than the person’s title, income, race, gender, height, size, or personality type. They are his or her character strengths, talents, passions, beliefs, and thinking traits. In this article, I will focus on character strengths.

Character is What You Really Are

John Wooden, the enormously successful basketball coach at UCLA, used to say, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

Character is what you really are. A great deal of your capacity to make a significant difference in your organization will come down to your character. This requires digging into understanding your character and identifying what it is about you that you can really rely on.

I’ve narrowed the characteristics of a person’s character down to ten words. They are integrity, resilience, caring, collaboration, poise, appreciation, curiosity, perspective, spirituality, and humor. What follows is a brief explanation of what I mean by each of these words along with other words that I associate with them. After you read these explanations, spend some time reflecting on your own character and rank these ten characteristics from strongest to weakest for yourself. This will help you to understand what characteristics of your character you will be able to rely on the most to make a significant difference in your organization.


Caring means that you focus on the quality of your relationships and the quality of your work. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you go to extraordinary lengths to make sure the other person feels understood and that the details of a project are executed well. Words I associate with caring are fairness, justice, empathy, forgiveness, kindness, quality, humanity, and love.


Collaboration means to share your ideas on a topic, listen to another person’s ideas, and work together to build even more effective ideas both before moving into action and as the work unfolds. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you refuse to make a decision before discussing it thoroughly with the members of your team. Words I associate with collaboration are open-mindedness, teamwork, loyalty, learning from others, discussions, co-creating, multiplying, enhancing, and brainstorming.


Poise means to maintain calmness even when the chaos and drama in the room are rising. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you can stay calm in even the most hostile environments. Words I associate with poise are calmness, confidence, relaxed, humility, modesty, maturity, self-control, patience, and flexibility.


Integrity means doing what you think is the right thing to do. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you refuse to do anything that you don’t think is the right thing to do. Words I associate with integrity are honesty, courage, genuineness, conscientiousness, authenticity, prudence, true to your beliefs, sincerity, duty, citizenship, and reliability.


Appreciation means to identify what you are thankful for in any situation. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you can find something to be thankful for in even the most difficult situations. Words I associate with appreciation are gratitude, thankfulness, zest, and focus on different types of excellence.


Curiosity means to search for insights and understanding in a given situation. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you search for insights from even the most mundane situations and the ones that seem to have no connection to your work. Words I associate with curiosity are innovation, creativity, mastery, future-minded, quantum leaps, breakthrough insights, love of learning, and obscure details.


Resilience means persevering through pain, difficulty, and long-term challenges in order to pursue your desired outcome. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you refuse to give up regardless of what you are facing. Words I associate with resilience are grit, determination, perseverance, competitive drive, focus, concentration, relentlessness, courage, valor, bravery, industriousness, stick-to-itiveness, discipline, and greatness.


Perspective means to see a situation from multiple points of view. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you look at any topic from multiple points of view and are able to articulate in a meaningful way how different types of people might see and feel about the topic. Words I associate with perspective are wisdom, knowledge, insight, judgment, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking.


Spirituality means believing you are part of something bigger than just yourself. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when your decisions are based on something larger than your own personal well-being. Words I associate with spirituality are purposefulness, sustained enthusiasm, reflection, quiet still voice, discernment, faith in a larger cause, and conscience.


Humor means to see the lighter side of any situation. It’s one of your strongest characteristics when you never take yourself too seriously no matter how serious the situation becomes. Words I associate with humor are playfulness, fun, funny, laughing, jokester, smiling, enjoying, joy, and lightening things up.

Now take out a sheet of paper. Here are the ten characteristics of your character I want you to focus on:











Try to rank these ten characteristics from strongest to weakest for your character. As you do this exercise you will start to see yourself with fresh eyes. Remember that strongest doesn’t mean best in the world. It just means of all these characteristics which one is strongest for you. As you sort through and reflect on these ten words, I think you will start to examine yourself at a deeper level and you will come to a better understanding of who you are today and what you have going for you to make a significant difference in your organization.

Your character is what you are right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve these characteristics. We can all get better in each of these areas. Understand where you are at so you can see what you have to use to make a significant difference right now. However, always work to strengthen your character. That will increase your chances for making a meaningful contribution going forward. Start with your three strongest characteristics and make them stronger. Don’t try to be great in all ten areas. Just take your three strongest characteristics and make them better.

If you would like to get a more psychological profile of your character strengths, I encourage you to visit Dr. Martin Seligman’s website: and go to the Questionnaires tab and select VIA Survey of Character Strengths. It’s free, and you might very well learn something about yourself. Before you do that, I do encourage you to do the self-reflective exercise in this article, and then you can compare where you landed with these words with the computer-generated answers you will receive from Seligman’s website.

About Dan Coughlin

As a business keynote speaker, executive coach, and management consultant, Dan Coughlin teaches The Any Person Mindset. It is based on his belief that any person can make a significant difference in an organization, but no one is born with the traits necessary to make a significant difference. These are learned thinking traits. Visit his free Business Leadership Idea Center at

Organizational Integration: How To Create a Robust Digital Culture – Pt. 2

(This is fifth and final post on strategic organizational integration. See the first post here.)

What To Do Next

Like me, poor collaboration and integration are what Gini Dietrich and Geoff Livingston saw time and again with the clients they worked with. Their book, Marketing In The Round, speaks to some of these very same issues about integration and collaboration. Where they are focused more on marketing the same principles apply across an organization.

How To Make it Happen:

  • Get everyone involved (including senior leadership)
  • Develop a strategy around your cause, purpose, and passion
  • Integrate and communicate about what’s happening and what’s needed –a new product, increased sales or donations, customer feed back, increased awareness, etc
  • Collaborate to create a tactical plan
  • Set goals and measures
  • Create a master calendar for sequencing
  • Refine your goals as you go

1) Discussion for your first meeting:

  • S.W.O.T. analysis of the organization (be brutally honest)
  • Who are your primary customers? (do the research)
  • What trends are affecting the organization? (get internal / external feedback)
  • How do you create value for your customers? (ask them, they will tell you)
  • Do we have anything innovative coming out soon? (why or why not?)
  • What challenges will we face as we move toward integration and collaboration? (be prepared)

2) Strategize
As you think about your strategies and tactics, make sure they are clearly defined. I see a lot of misunderstanding in this area.

Objective/Vision = an organizations desired end
Strategy = a plan of action designed to achieve the objective
Target = a specific value assigned to a goal
Tactics = a means to carry out the strategy

Objective/Vision = to acquire new donors
Strategy = use Facebook to increase reach and conversions
Target = 200 new donors in Q4 2013
Tactics = a $5-Off coupon for sharing weekly offers

3) Integrate and Communicate
Talk about what’s happening and what’s needed –a new product, increased sales or donations, customer feed back, increased awareness, etc.

4) Collaborate
How can marketing play into the plan? How can PR play into the plan? How can communications, social media, direct mail, the website, broadcast and others play into the plan?

5) Set Goals
One to three goals for each tactical area should be created. These goals should support one another and compliment not pull apart. You need to know the pros/cons of each discipline and what they bring to the table to set the right goals.

6) Create a master calendar
Visualizing and sequencing all the efforts will determine your success. Consider which tactics should lead and which should support and interweave.

7) Refine the goals as you go
We have instant reporting in our digital world. We do not need to wait months to analyze data. Review your results and evaluate what needs to be adjusted. Keep communicating with your organizational team.

Integration Done Right

Dietrich and Livingston identify 5 different levels of integration:

  1. Horizontal integration – across business functions like finance and sales. All conscious of how their decisions and actions affect customers.
  2. Vertical integration – this means the web objectives support higher level organizational goals and strategies
  3. Internal integration – this is communication, keeping everyone informed and motivated
  4. External integration – this means getting your venders and other external agencies around the table together and including them in strategies and goal setting
  5. Data integration – sharing data and information internally is critical to know how you are doing and what needs to change

Remember: Integration and collaboration are key – it almost never fails because it’s implemented early. It usually always fails because it’s implemented too late.

Organizational Integration: How To Create a Robust Digital Culture – Pt. 1

(This is the fourth installment on strategic organizational integration. See the first post here.)

To recap the previous posts, I have discussed the deadening impact of departmental silos on an organizations growth. I created phrases to help you remember the principles we have covered to this point. Remember, if you want to grow, say no to the silo. I also covered the affect of collaboration and integration on Next-Gen employee retention and productivity. The phrase being: When loyalty and productivity are KEY, the bigger picture is WE.

Now I am going to answer the question many have asked, “How do we get there?” What does it look like to integrate not just departments but, digital disciplines across an organization?

Organizational Change Takes Courage and Commitment

It takes bold steps to create the level of change that will be needed. As Seth Godin said:

“The best time to change your business model [or organizational model] is while you still have momentum.”  – from Tribes

Seth has a term I love – “Sheepwalkers”. He goes onto describe these types of organizations as ones that hire people to be obedient and to do brain-dead jobs with enough fear and intimidation to keep them in line. Sad. The truth is, when you hire amazing and collaborative people they do amazing things. Unfortunately, when you are trying to change an organization you will run into “sheepwalkers”. You can always tell who the “sheepwalkers” are, they are the ones shaking their heads saying change is not good and will never last because it’s way too risky. You may have to remove the sheepwalkers.

Andy Stanley is an author, prominent speaker, and the leader of North Point Ministries. Before North Point Ministries, Andy led the efforts of a  satellite campus in north Atlanta, Georgia. This campus was a branch of the church led by his father downtown. I attended the north campus when Andy announced he was leaving – with no job lined up and no staff. He only had a vision for a new way to “do church”. You can read more about this story in the book, Deep & Wide. Today, many of you may have heard of North Point Community Church. They have been so successful they started North Point Ministries to export content they have created and share what they are learning through their annual Drive conference.

Was Andy a “sheepwalker”? No. Was Andy fearful? Sure he was but he was also willing to follow the vision planted in his heart over 17 years ago. I have had the privilege to be amongst the founding members and seen the incredible work they are doing, not only in Atlanta but, around the globe because Andy was willing to be courageous, commit, and step out.

Don’t give in to the F Word – Fear.

What are you afraid of? Being wrong?! Seth Godin says, “The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal.”

We need business leaders that are willing to create a culture of integration and collaboration.

It won’t happen over night but to leverage your employees, technology, and processes and to maximize the organizations we work for, we have to row in the same direction without fear. We have to optimize all our channels. It’s not about what media, department, or leader is best — its about getting the vision, message, and product out to people!

In the next and final post, I’ll share steps for creating an integrated robust digital culture.

Why Is Staff Retention and Loyalty Waining?

(This is the third installment in a series on strategic integration. See the first post here.)

We are in a new generation of web workers. Gone are the days of retiring from a single job. Today’s employees have grown up seeing their parents and family members let go from long time jobs because the company wanted to pay less for someone willing to work longer hours. Generation Y has been witness to this “old style” of management and, whether it is working with a nonprofit or for-profit, GenY holds no loyalty to most organizations.

Dave Ramsey said it best in his book, EntreLeadership:

“Do you know why most employees aren’t loyal to their company and leadership? Because their company and leadership aren’t loyal to them.”
– Ramsey, Dave (2011-09-20). EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches. Howard Books.

In a chapter of Dr. Tim Elmore’s book, Generation iY: Our Last Chance To Save Their Future, Tim discusses the unique influence of younger Millennials, born after 1990, on the workforce. Tim makes the following eight predictions about Gen iY in the workplace based on his research and ongoing work with young leaders. These eight predictions span the next 15 years of young Millennials entering the workforce. Tim states Gen iY will:

  1. Job-hop in search of the perfect career
  2. Innovate in the use of technology
  3. See waves of depression and disappointment in the workplace
  4. Want parent involvement in their work life
  5. Expect change and amusement
  6. Search for meaning, not just money
  7. Have low tolerance for jobs that fail to provide speedy rewards
  8. Pursue both influence and affluence

We have to become people-centric organizations. Not just keeping the customer in view but our employees as well. For more on this topic, see

Remember: When loyalty and productivity are KEY, the bigger picture is WE

Strategic Integration

As stated in the first part of this series, silos are for dead things and not growing things. Silos = a mundane job. People having a jobs to make money to pay bills.

Integration promotes growth. Integration = a passionate cause. People are passionate about a cause they believe in and find significance in the work they do. Integration in an organization creates collaboration and collaboration unifies people around common purposes and goals. Silos do not unify, they segregate.

An Example of Integration Done Right

Departmental integration: Mother New York (Agency)

Several years ago, Rob DeFlorio started at Mother New York. Mother is a creative agency with offices in London, New York, and Buenos Aires. Rob’s first task was to promote collaboration and creativity within the office. He says he did not originate with the idea but got it from the London office which started with little money and put all employees around a large table. As the agency grew they added more tables. When DeFlorio visited the U.K. office there were 60 people around one big long table. Everyone had a wireless laptop and 2-drawer rolling file because every three months people were required to move. Crazy? DeFlorio started it in the New York office.


DeFlorio says it best,

“…when things go wrong in most companies or departments, it’s usually because people start thinking that only one thing is their job, like making a rivet. When you sit at one table you always see the whole picture. You’re not just making a rivet; your making the whole airplane. The environment fosters…a better understanding of the bigger picture, because you’re all in it together and can all see what’s happening”

There were several “nay sayers” when the New York office started using the table philosophy but they have come around to be some of the biggest advocates. And, Millennials that come on staff automatically get it. It has become an extremely collaborative and productive environment.

For more, see Spark, written by John Windsor.

What are ways to leverage integration and collaboration to prevent Next Gen Web Workers from walking out the door? From his research, Dr. Elmore gives us six recommendations for finding and keeping employees:

  1. Foster friendships and teamwork – draw on their strong peer affiliations
  2. Provide purpose – help them understand how their work makes a difference and supports a larger cause
  3. Offer flexibility and options – provide options for when they work, how they work, and where they work
  4. Value volunteerism – offer opportunities to make a difference in the world while making a contribution to the company
  5. Challenge them with change – creatively use their energy and desire for new things
  6. Make the most of their strengths – be intentional in using what this tech-savvy and confident generation has to offer

Integration unlocks the door to staff loyalty and productivity.

Remember: When loyalty and productivity are KEY, the bigger picture is WE

The Good And Bad About Organizational Silos

Aside from being concentrated areas of expertise, there is really not much good about organizational silos. Yes, they can individually provide results but they’re nowhere near as powerful as when collaborating and working together with cross-functional teams.

The Bad Things About Organizational Silos

There Are Behavioral issues

This can take the form of leaders with relationship issues or department rivalry (often as a result of poor leadership) creating barriers that keep people from working together. This becomes a spiral downward:

  • Lack of trust – We are going to scrutinize everything you do and be critical of your work
  • Disappointment – If you would only see things as we do
  • Resentment and bitterness – If you are not for us then you must be against us
  • Gossip and back-biting – We won’t attempt to talk to you but we will talk about you

Forbes magazine noted in the May 2011 issue:

“…silos destroy trust, cut off communication, and foster complacency. What is meant to produce power and control really creates animosity and suspicion.”

Even in the Bible, the Apostle Paul said in the book of 1 Corinthians, chapter 12:

“You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.
A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.
What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”?
– The Message

There Are Structural Issues

In most every organization there are 5 structural factors:

  1. Division of Labor – tasks the employees do
  2. Departmentalization – grouping similar types of jobs
  3. Managerial Hierarchy – the way in which management is layered
  4. Span of Control – relates to the number of employees supervised by a manager
  5. Centralization vs. Decentralization – centralized authority vs. decentralized authority

No matter the factors, silos seem to be the predominant structural outcome. So what do we do? For starters, we lift up and name our silos:

  • Operations,
  • Business development,
  • Marketing,
  • Donor development,
  • Human resources,
  • Communications,
  • Finance and accounting,
  • Broadcast,
  • Public Relations,
  • Web department,
  • Information services, etc.

Then we put “chiefs” over each silo:

  • COO,
  • CMO,
  • CLO,
  • CFO,
  • CIO, etc.

Please do not get me wrong at this point. I am all for structure and organized work yet, can you see how this begins to set up many organizations for failure with over complicated business processes, in-fighting, and internal “kingdom building”?

“But what about leadership?” you may ask.

Leaders over these areas have a focus and desire to get their job done while looking out for their people. Yet, many leaders loose sight over time.

Pat Lencioni said it best:

“Even the most well-meaning, intelligent people get distracted and confused amid the endless tactical and administrative details that come there way ever day. Pulled in many directions without a compass, they pursue seemingly worthwhile agendas under the assumption that their efforts will be in the best interest of the organization as a whole”
– Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars

Do you see how allowing silos in an organization becomes a strategic issue? If this is not handled at the leadership level and properly dealt with, the organization will never reach it’s full potential.

Why Integration and Collaboration is The Key

Let’s first look at the word integrate and collaborate.

1. to bring together or incorporate (parts) into a whole.
2. to make up, combine, or complete to produce a whole or a larger unit, as parts do.
3. to unite or combine.
4. to combine into one unified system; desegregate.

1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work.
2. to cooperate, usually willingly.

A matrix management organization attempts to work in this direction. I am for integrating, bringing together, and uniting around a common cause. I am for intentional communication, collaborating, working together, cooperating willingly toward common goals.

When we look at it this way, it is not integration into an amorphous blob of an organization nor collaborating on every web project or detail within any department, but working toward common strategic priorities and goals.

Questions for Consideration

  1. Take some time to discuss what the strategic purpose and priorities are for your organization (not your department nor your position).
  2. Is the organizational purpose understood?
  3. How do you and your team contribute to the purpose?
  4. Are the priorities clear? If not, how can they be clarified?
  5. If they are clear, are they being communicated across the entire organization?

Taking the time to answer these questions are a first step toward smashing the silos in your workplace.

Remember: If You Want To Grow, Say No To The Silo

In the next installment, we will look at how staff retention and loyalty affect strategic integration.

(This post is part of a series on Strategic Integration. See the first post here.)

What’s all this talk about being authentic?

By Dan Coughlin

There has been a flurry of discussions and comments lately about the importance of being authentic. I hear it from my clients, I read about it in articles, I see people talking about it on tv, and I receive emails about how someone is or is not authentic. Somehow “authenticity” has become a critically important element of business leadership. When a word gets elevated to common usage, there usually is a variety of reasons lurking underneath.

People Used to Just Be Themselves and Not Talk about Being Themselves

I grew up in Jennings, Missouri. It would be hard to imagine a less pretentious place than Jennings in the 1960s and 1970s. No one ever talked about being themselves. They just were themselves. There was Mr. Nolan, the athletic kind man who coached our teams, Ed Mensio, the chain-smoker who coached my soccer team in 7th grade and never said a mean word to anyone, and Gene Coughlin, my dad who coached our baseball and basketball teams even though he had six kids to worry about. There was Mrs. Schulte and the Maixners who worked so hard in the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. There was Miss Kostecki and Miss Hake, my fifth grade and third grade teachers, who were just totally themselves. I never heard anybody talking about someone being genuine or authentic. We all just were who we were.

Why Do People Stop Being Themselves

If authenticity is so much in demand, it must mean that there is a real shortage of authentic business leaders. What has caused this shortage? What keeps people from just being themselves? Here are three reasons, and I suppose they are all connected to one another.

The Chase

Chasing after money or fame or titles or authority, and the power we think comes with them, can cause us to let go of who we really are and try to become someone else. We start to think if we talk a certain way or act a certain way or treat people a certain way we will increase our chances of getting what we want in life. Little by little we let go of old ways of thinking and behaving and start to assimilate new ways.

Sometimes this is real personal progress. We are evolving, we are maturing, and we are becoming capable of handling much greater responsibilities. That part is good. Without it, we would never advance as a society.

Sometimes this is bad. We lose our values, we lose the essence of who we are, and that can lead to big, big problems. Then we spend the rest of our lives in the chase to become someone we are not. We end up neither as who we really are nor as the person we think we want to become. Oh boy. That’s a real mess.

The Image (or The Mirage)

Another way we lose ourselves is in trying to project a certain image either by the clothes we wear or the cars we drive or through social media. We want our image to reflect the person we want to be rather than the person we really are. Little by little our authenticity gets worn away, and we end up trying like crazy to come across as the authentic version of who we think we want to be. The only problem is everyone else realizes that we aren’t authentic at all. Notice how close the word image is to the word mirage.

The Security Blanket

Sometimes we achieve real success in some area of our lives, and then that success becomes our security blanket. It becomes our identity. If we made a bunch of money, then having a big salary becomes part of our persona. If we won a major sporting event, then that championship becomes part of how we are introduced to other people. The problem is this security blanket can easily take over how we see ourselves. Now we’re no longer just ourselves. We are the label that we have earned and want to hang on to forever.

When Have I Lost My Genuineness

In my first semester in high school I was so afraid I was going to do poorly that I worked like a maniac and I got really, really high grades. Then I saw myself as my grade point average. I became cocky and arrogant about how “smart” I was. What I didn’t want anyone to know was that I was studying four hours a night including Friday and Saturday night. It wasn’t that I was so smart. It was that I was obsessed with high grades. The problem was compounded when that label no longer meant that much to me during my junior and senior year in college, and I put in a really, really poor effort and did terribly. I had allowed “labels” to drive my behaviors.

I never heard anyone say, “Just let you be you,” until my college coach, Dennis Grace, said it to me the year after I graduated from college. I was worried about fitting in with a group of really successful soccer coaches and he told me to stop worrying about impressing them and just be myself. I wish I had always remembered Coach Grace’s advice.

When I first started my own business in 1996, I felt I had to project a certain image. So I bought expensive shirts and had them monogrammed. Then it dawned on me that people weren’t hiring me for my shirts but rather for my ideas so I stopped with the fancy shirts. Same thing happened with buying a fancy car. Thought I needed to impress people. Then I realized that all I do is drive to the airport to fly to see clients and the fancy car was sitting in the airport parking lot. So I got rid of that as well.

In almost every situation where I’ve lost myself it was because I was trying too hard to impress other people. It’s vastly easier just being myself than trying to figure out what a variety of other people expect from me. The funny thing is they usually aren’t thinking about me at all. They are thinking about themselves and how they are coming across.

Some Authentic People in My Life

Recently I met up with two people, Joaquin and Lee, who I had not talked with in a very long time. Joaquin played soccer for me at Tri-State University in 1986. We were only together for one year and then I left Tri-State to go to DePaul University. Joaquin was optimistic and positive and upbeat and enthusiastic from the first minute I met him all the way to the last minute of the last game in 1986. Then I completely lost track of him until he found me on LinkedIn a few weeks ago. The next morning we talked and he was exactly the same person on the phone as he was 27 years earlier. Same fun, excited, upbeat personality. Joaquin has gone on to great success with the Fox television network, and I believe it’s because he’s stayed true to himself.

Same with Lee. I met him in December of 1996. We met at a restaurant for breakfast. I was still a high school teacher and Lee was a Director of Operations at a regional office in St. Louis. I was wanting to work with business people to help them improve their performance as leaders, and Lee was open to meeting with me. It was a remarkably down-to-earth conversation. Lee became one of my first clients. We worked together for several years, and then we lost track of each other for about five years. I saw Lee a few weeks ago. We sat at a restaurant and talked for 90 minutes. He was exactly the same way as he was in 1996. In the 17 years since we first met Lee has gone on to an amazing career. I believe a big part of his success is that he has stayed true to himself.

Be the Same Person in Every Situation

So how does a person stay authentic? I think one way is to reflect on how you behave with different groups of people. Do you act the same way in different situations, do you have the same beliefs in different situations, and do you make the same kind of jokes with different groups? When a person is all spiritual with one group and tells sexist and racist jokes with another group, I start to doubt how real they really are. When a person says they stand for one thing in one setting and something totally different in a different setting or when a different person enters the room, my spider senses start to tingle.

Reconnect with Your Past on a Regular Basis

One way, I think, to increase the chances of staying true to who you really are is to embrace relationships with people from your past. Go visit them, have lunch with them, and really talk with them. I believe they will remind you of values and important things in your life that you may very easily have forgotten about. Reconnect with them on email or on the phone. Your past can significantly help you to understand how to deal more effectively with the future.

Find the Word that Describes You

I was at a seminar recently by a woman named Connie Dieken, and she asked us all to write down a word that described our work. I’ve done this kind of exercise many times in the past so I didn’t expect any real insights. I was all ready to write down “teacher,” but then a better word came to me. I’m a suggester. In all of my work as a speaker, seminar leader, writer, and executive coach, I’m basically trying to suggest ideas for other people to consider. I encourage them to take the ideas seriously, but in the end it’s up to each person to decide which of my ideas, if any, he or she wants to really focus on trying to implement. Now that’s not the kind of word that’s going to impress anyone. No one goes to college to become a professional suggester, but that’s what I am, and I’m completely okay with that. I like my role very much.

What are you? What word, or words, describes the essence of what you do for a living? I think the more you understand who you really are, the more likely you are to be comfortable in being that person.


Slow down. Step off the train for a few minutes. Think about who you really are. Go back in time to the experiences and people who helped to form your values early in life. Stay there in your mind for awhile.

Now come back. Are those the values you want guiding your life today? If they are, how can you make them a bigger part of your life today? If they are not what you want, what have you learned over the years about the person you really want to be? How can you stay true to that person more and more on a regular basis?

About Dan Coughlin

Dan Coughlin works with business leaders to improve their impact on teamwork, execution, innovation, and branding. His clients include McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Abbott, GE, Marriott, Coca-Cola, Shell, Toyota, RE/MAX, Boeing, Subway, BJC HealthCare, St. Louis Cardinals, Prudential, Land O’Lakes, ACE Hardware, Jack in the Box, Denny’s, Land O’Lakes, Holder Construction, Kiewit Construction, McCarthy Building Companies, and more than 200 other organizations.

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