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Waiting for Permission to Have Swagger at Work? Stop. And Start Being a Badass Right Now.

Leslie Ehm
Apr 30, 2018 · 7 min read

I hear a lot of excuses as to why having swagger AKA ‘being authentic’ won’t fly at work. Most people genuinely believe their colleagues and, even more so, their bosses, do not give rat’s ass about who they really are. They think the expectation is to show up, do a good job, and try not to ruffle too many feathers along the way.

But if you’re not bringing your whole self to work, how can you possibly deliver 100%? And what if the stuff you’re hiding or holding back is your uniquely juicy swagger — the secret sauce that would not only differentiate you, but help bring some diversity of thought and opinion to the team?

If you’re sitting around waiting for someone to give you permission to keep it real, you best not hold your breath. Cuz it ain’t coming.

Assimilation into the Borg?

For so many organizations, going with the flow makes things easier. This can leave us wondering whether daring to swim upstream will have us viewed as fabulous fish, or as pains in the ass that should be netted and vetted ASAP.

The short answer is “It depends.”

Assimilation, by definition, is not the key to success. Nor is standing out just for the sake of it. The secret is in the ability to figure out whether people are digging your realness and if it’s adding, or getting in the way of, value. And then make some decisions accordingly.

It’s the Not Knowing That Sucks

You’re in a meeting. You know your boss is stressed and is trying to get some decisions made. Everyone else on the team is nodding and smiling. Meanwhile, your brain is on fire. You’ve all seen this decision fail before and know it’s going to play havoc with the team the second the boss looks away. You’re tired of doing the same thing over and over again knowing the result. But is it insanity to keep quiet, or crazier still to call it out?

Do you? Or don’t you?

“Ummm,” you venture. “I’m not sure if this is the best way forward.” All eyes swivel in your direction. You’ve just become a morsel of juicy prey for the flow followers and haters in the room. Then again, you might just be a hero. But how do you know for sure?

The next thing you say can make all the difference.

Cojones for Good or Evil?

Swagger is rooted in truth, intention and self-belief. If you don’t speak your truth you’re being disloyal to yourself. The key is in your intention. What is it you hope to accomplish by running the risk of being perceived as a shit-disturber? Is it to simply to get noticed? Prove that you have cojones? To make your own job easier? Or is it to try and bring some healthy challenge to an unhealthy situation, regardless of the obstacles? If it’s the former, get ready for the blow back. That’s not being authentic, it’s being self-serving. (For the record, if your true intention is to be self-serving then you should check yourself. It’s never going to end well).

To have swagger, your intention has to outweigh your fear. You speak your truth even if it may get shut down because you truly believe in the value of your contribution. You’d rather be a pain in the ass problem-solver than a passive problem-accepter.

But accomplishing that requires vulnerability.

“Ummm,” you venture… “I’m not sure if this is the best way forward. I really have a ton of respect for this team and I see how hard we all work. I love being a part of it. I really want to try and help to make it easier for everyone and I’m wondering whether there might be another way forward that would do that. Would you be open to some other approaches? I’d be happy to bring you some ideas if you and the team are open to it.”

It would be pretty hard for anyone to hate on THAT!

See, swagger is as much about keeping it real as it is overtly flying your freak flag on the daily. Authenticity doesn’t have to just come across as barfing your insides out for all to see. It can be about having the courage to disagree, to come at things from new angles, to reveal your truth in a variety of forms and to be unafraid of the consequences — because you’ll never ever know until you try.

You Have to Show Up To Be Seen

When I first met her, Rohina Fuller was in Senior Manager role at TD Bank Technology Services. She felt stuck — getting passed over for promotion time and time again. And she was frustrated as hell. Something was going to have to give.

I met her at the start of a leadership program and could smell her skepticism a mile off. Yet again, here was someone telling her to show up in a new and different way — only this time she was being told to just be herself (as if that had ever worked for her).

Her moment of truth came unexpectedly. Due to a scheduling challenge, she was thrust into the second part of the communication skills module not with her peers, but a room filled with Associate VPs — the very superiors who had been passing her over.

Grab Your Moments of Truth

In the workshop, Ro was tasked with bringing something personal to a ‘corporate’ story. She had a million options and about twelve backdoors she could have exited through. Instead, she opted to open the scariest door possible and walk through it.

Rohina told an emotional story about being a “fat kid” growing up and how the obesity had been her protective armour from her parents’ painful divorce. It was completely unguarded, real and vulnerable. In her mind, it was also a risk of epic proportions. This was something she never talked about with ANYONE — forget a room filled with people who potentially held her future in their hands.

But instead of looking weak in their eyes, something completely different — and amazing — happened.

From that moment on, Rohina found herself more connected. Hallway chats were more relaxed, approaching leaders for face time became easier and as a result, her name started coming up more in talent conversations.

Rohina was chosen to speak at the kick-off for a subsequent leadership program — held up as one of the super successful candidates from the previous cohort.

After that, she was able to sit down and have a very different conversation about her career trajectory. The next time her name was raised, the question wasn’t “Why her?” it was “Why NOT her?”. She’d finally been seen. Rohina hadn’t asked for permission to keep it real. She’d just taken it.

Soon after, Rohina was offered a new role as AVP, Service Continuity Operations, reporting directly to the Chief Technology Officer. No more interviews. It was hers for the taking.

No One Puts Swagger in the Corner

What Rohina learned is the greatest lesson that swagger has to teach us. When you keep your shit real, it’s your actual self that achieves, is celebrated and acknowledged. As a result, who you truly are grows, strengthens and builds confidence. Self-doubt diminishes, intention is reinforced and self-belief blossoms. It’s a virtuous circle that can only be kicked off by a brave first step.

So stop waiting for someone else to make it safe for you to reveal your authenticity. Step into it, shake your bad ass tail feathers, respectfully revel in your truth and always, always check your intention. Do it right now.

Because swagger needs no permission.

Leslie Ehm is a speaker, author and President & Chief Fire Starter at Combustion Training. Her book SWAGGER is published in 2019.

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