I was burning out being whom I thought everyone expected me to be.
I tried to copy other leaders whom I respected because I did not believe that being me was good enough.
The inauthenticity affected my relationships and my peace of mind.
At work, I was good at being what I thought others wanted me to be.
It dawned on me that I could do even better by being the best version of my authentic self.
I came to that conclusion after being bullied by a general officer. It was the most toxic environment of my professional career.
He was all smiling in public; scathing and belittling in private.
He could not tolerate anyone being different from him.
He wanted abusive people around him, so he could maintain the good-guy image.
I was used to being the extroverted leader that I thought everyone expected me to be.
But becoming a clone of an abuser like him crossed a red line.
The rebellion led me to insist on being myself.
First, I had to confront the reason why I felt the need to copy others.
I was skinny and awkward in high-school. That made me a target.
The harder I tried to fit in, the more awkward I became, and the bullying got worse.
This situation did not escape the notice of some high school faculty.
One was an absolute angel. Whenever I get asked who was my favorite teacher of all time, I always mention Jeannie.
Two others were resident priests with different versions of the bait and switch.
Comfort and assault. One pawed and groped. The other was a voyeur.
They counted on silence.
The experiences were so disturbing, so beyond the pale, and so wrong that I did not have a way to process them or a language to discuss them.
I knew I never wanted to be in that situation again and that I wanted to prevent that from happening to others, too.
Accepting an appointment to West Point, I took on the toughest programs and assignments I could find in the military.
I could defend myself and others.
That was all to the good.
The downside was this sense that being myself was not good enough and that I needed to be like others I respected.
I made my share of mistakes along the way, too.
It took over three decades to begin talking about what happened in high school and to understand how I responded to it.
A loved one asked me why I began to speak openly. Wasn’t I embarrassed?
Silence is the great enabler.
The bullies and the predators count on people being silent, looking the other way, and burying their stories inside of them.
Some bullies are overt, like the groper.
Most, though, are subtle, like the general and voyeur. They smile in public and abuse in private. They want you to compromise yourself; guilt and shame are self-silencers.
I discussed authenticity and my challenges along the way with internationally renowned author Dr. Mark Goulston.
Maybe shining a light on bullying and sexual assault will deter the creeps.
Maybe it will help good people heal so that they can look forward and not worry about the rear-view mirror.
If you or someone you know has experienced abuse, I hope this story will help stop the kind of copycat behavior that nearly wiped me out.
Share this article and podcast with your employees and co-workers and have a conversation. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Most people, I’ve learned, have experienced some form of trauma and abuse.
You don’t have to be defined by bad or good experiences.
Define yourself by the value and impact you want to bring to the world.
Resources for you:
Here’s a very simple way to start being the best version of yourself. Begin with your authentic servant-leader archetype.
Authenticity gives you more energy at work and home, amplifies on your superpowers (your natural inclinations), and tells you who your need around you for cognitive diversity.
We’ll discuss these issues and more in my free on demand masterclass. Register here.