Dawn Barry and the DNA of Authentic Leadership

Have you ever experienced something that changes you in a significant way? Something that shifts the lens through which you view yourself, your work, and your relationship to the world around you?  I was lucky enough to have just this experience. I attended an event in which I had the pleasure of hearing Dawn Barry speak. Her topic was Authentic Leadership, and her message was so powerful, I felt inspired to share it with you.

Dawn Barry is currently the founder and President of Luna DNA, after spending twelve years as an executive at Illumina. Prior to entering the workforce, she attended the University of Vermont, earning her degree in Biology and playing Division 1 softball. Her entire career has been spent in the field of genomics.

But Dawn wasn’t there to talk to us about science — she was there to tell us about a turning point in her own career during which she learned what it means to lead with authenticity. In the early 2,000’s when Dawn was starting working, she was coached to lead like a stereotypical, old school, male exec. She was coached to dress a certain way. She had to maintain a serious demeanor. Feelings, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses were attributes she was taught to leave at home.

While preparing for a TEDx talk, Dawn got a sneak peek into the power of opening up and allowing her personal feelings to come forward. She was well versed in giving science talks, but her first few cuts at her TEDx talk failed to impress her coach. Her coach said, “I’m sure all this science stuff is important and interesting to you, but I’m bored. I want to know about you and why this stuff is important to you…. why should I listen to YOU?” Dawn tried again and still her coach pressed her, “where does your energy about all this stuff come from?”

Frustrated, Dawn let it all go. “I’ve been in biotech my whole life,” she said, “and watched both of my parents die of cancer over a one-year span with seemingly no insights from science – no molecular characterization of the tumor, no DNA guided drug choices, no personalized medicine. Meanwhile, I’m trying to climb the corporate ladder while taking care of my parents and raising two babies. After my parents died, I moved to California to work at Illumina headquarters to accelerate fixing this stuff.”

Her coach smiled and almost shed a tear. “Now,” he said “Now, I want to listen to you.”

By opening up, Dawn had created room for her coach and the TEDx audience to connect with her on a deeper level, and the result was powerful. Particularly in industries defined by innovation and change, leaders must emotionally connect with people in order to establish trust and encourage dialogue. Dawn’s years of projecting invincibility, of not showing her emotions, had actually hurt her ability to lead.

So, who are authentic leaders? They are genuine. They show their real selves at all times. They do not act one way in private and another in public. Authentic leaders are mission and purpose driven. Innovation is often being met with uncertainty, and that’s okay. Authentic leaders establish themselves as trusted stewards of change.

After Dawn’s talk, I spent some time thinking about what authentic leadership meant to me. I thought about how important trust and rapport are when I’m leading my training workshops — if my clients don’t trust me, how are they expected to adopt the methodologies I teach to improve their sales results?

How about the role of authenticity in the sales process itself? If a buyer doesn’t trust that a seller is motivated by fixing a legitimate business problem, rather than just make a buck, how effective can the seller possibly be? A sales person’s ability to connect on an emotional level and establish trust and rapport is critical to his overall success.

On a personal note, I find myself thinking about authenticity as it relates to other areas of my life. How I can be a more authentic husband, father and friend? How can I be brave enough to show my true self to those around me, and allow them the space to do the same?

Has authenticity played a role in your life — either personally or professionally? I’d love to hear more.