Naked Leader


Managing people. That was a goal that I had when I started working. This would reflect that I was advancing in my career. But I had really never taught to manage so I did what I thought was right. Whenever we were given a task, I would push my teams to get results. It was never about people. If they were not aligned, I thought they were incapable. This continued on throughout my career life. It probably got worse as I got promoted and rewarded for delivering the results. In the eyes of my employers, I was a high performer. My partners knew they could rely on me. We always delivered. We would accomplish it at whatever cost. This became self-reinforcing – Do well. Get promoted. Get raises. Not bad.

Failed opportunities. There were a few moments where it may have dawned on me that the way I was doing it was not the best way. I remember one Monday morning where I was about to go through the list of tasks and things we had to focus on for the week. One of the consultants on the team paused and then asked me if I could just ask once in a while how their weekends went. At the time, I didn’t get why this was important. Why didn’t I see the value in these things?

I’m not proud of these moments. I realized that I only brought a part of myself to work. Was I really that uncaring as a person? Was I really that cold? In my personal life, I was different. It gave me joy to care for my loved ones. Then why was it so hard for me to ask how peoples’ weekends went?

Turning point. When I started Awaken Group, one of my mentors did an assessment of me. He looked at me and said, “I’ve done this thousands of times and you have one of the most dysfunctional childhoods of anyone I know.” I paused. I was taken aback in denial, “How could he say this about my family?” That led me on a journey to understand and question why I was so dysfunctional. I started a journey to understand why I felt the need to compartmentalize different parts of my life.

Lessons learned. I learned that the true meaning of integrity is not just telling the truth. I learned that integrity is really about being whole. It is about consistency of actions to what you believe. I realized I was not in integrity with my whole self because I was so compartmentalized. I started to give myself permission to bring more of myself and my heart to the workplace. It wasn’t about trying to be a leader. I just tried to be a whole person. I stopped trying and striving. I decided to just be.

Impact. Then something amazing started to happen. As I became more integrated as a human and started to articulate my vision for Awaken Group to transform the world through leaders, people started to be attracted and come. People started to offer to work for free. Totally irrational. Amazing people started showing up and wanting to work together….AND…I started to find joy and beauty at work. Our clients would see the joy and ask us if we like each other. I started to feel blessed and privileged to work with people whom I genuinely cared for and who cared for me.

What is leadership? It is not a goal. As a result of being more whole, I gave myself permission to just be. And the impact seems to have been, that people want to follow. I learned that a big difference between managing and leading was having the freedom to just be myself and bring myself regardless of situation. It was about giving myself permission to be human and starting to exercise that right in every encounter and in every conversation…Leading was about being authentic, real, flawed and vulnerable. It was about having purpose and passion for my vision and sharing that with others with no pretense or no agenda. Integrity is not about having 5 circles or 5 compartments that I’m working with but really bringing those circles together to being a whole person. It’s not easy and will take time. It’s not about trying to be someone I’m not, but giving myself permission to be who I am. I continue on that journey not focused on trying to ‘be a leader’ but just being.

Managing vs. leading? Does that mean I don’t have to be a manager anymore? Of course not. I still have to mange my teams and my clients. I just choose to do it in a way that is authentic and human and have impact in a way that makes sense and is meaningful to me. Good news is that you don’t have to choose to either be a manager or a leader. You can be both. Do it authentically and in a way that is integrated to what you believe and value. It requires a conscious choice.

Make a conscious choice to be open…and brace yourself for the beauty you will see.
So-Young Kang