Leadership Emanates from the Depths of Who You Are

By Dr Brenda Holt (FCLP’14), Principal, St Hilda’s College, The University of Melbourne

I have now been in senior leadership roles for over 20 years, and in that time I have learnt that authenticity goes a really long way — your leadership emanates from the depths of who you are. It is important to bring the best of who you are and play to those strengths well.

Be Authentic

Authenticity — being true to yourself, and allowing others to know who you really are — goes a long way. Your leadership emanates from the depths of who you are, not from who you would like to be. I learned this lesson the hard way. When I was a young leader at University, I was invited to give an important speech on leadership to a large gathering of student leaders. The feedback was extraordinary and I left feeling as though I had done an incredible job. I told captivating stories and included quotes from the latest books on leadership. Afterwards, an older mentor caught up with me. ‘Oh, Brenda,’ she said, ‘a lot of people really admire you.’  I did my best to look humble. Then she continued, ‘Of course, no one actually knows you. I have just listened to you speak for 20 minutes and I know nothing about who you really are.’ She didn’t stop. ‘If you have any plans to truly influence people,’ she said, ‘you need to let people know you. Admired leaders sit on pedestals but have no lasting impact on others. It is leaders who are known that make others want to follow them and be better people.’

After I picked myself up and licked my wounds, I realised how right she was. Think first about a leader that you have always admired from a distance, but never known personally. Has their life had any real impact on the way that you live your life every day? Then think about a person who has really influenced you — your ways of being, your values, your life goals — and I would bet it is someone that you know well, someone that has let you know them as a flawed but real human being. Real leaders influence others, and influence only happens when you are known. Being placed on a pedestal and admired by others from afar makes you feel great in the moment. The truth is, it makes no real difference in people’s lives.

True North

Some of my peers read voraciously about leadership. They are constantly trying on different styles of leadership they have read about. You can be a strategic leader, an innovative leader, a consultative leader, a networked leader. The list of possibilities is endless. What I have found really helpful is Bill George’s concept of True North. True North is your orientation point, your fixed point in a spinning world that helps you stay on track as a leader. It is derived from your most deeply held beliefs, values and the principles you lead by. True North is your internal compass, unique to you, representing who you are at your deepest level.

I have discovered that if I bring my True North, my most authentic self, to my role, I will be the best leader I can be. It’s true, you can always learn new skills in leadership, however who you are, is set in place. Work out your strengths and stop beating yourself up for what you’re not good at. I will never be dispassionate and reserved. Believe me, I’ve tried. It is not in my DNA. I will never be the sort of leader who can be bureaucratic and transactional. My True North is a deep love for people, a commitment to their development and care and a dedication to help every person in my wake get to where they need to go. My strengths help me be that sort of leader and I have stopped trying to be anyone else.

Bringing my authentic self to everything I do, means that I am completely present wherever I am and with whoever I’m with. It also means that I always have a larger picture in mind. I am constantly thinking about culture, structures and resources that will help everyone in my care be their best selves.

I will leave you with some key questions to help you discover your own authentic self:

  1. What one word do you want people to use to describe you? What word would they currently use?
  2. If you were to donate everything you have to a cause or charity, which cause would it be?
  3. If you accomplish one thing by the end of the year, what would make the biggest impact on your happiness?
  4. What do you think are the most important values to live by? Are you living your life accordingly?


Dr Brenda Holt (FCLP’14)

Brenda’s work as an educator over the last twenty years has focused around equity and access for underrepresented young people. Starting her career at an outer suburban high school in Melbourne as an English teacher, Brenda moved to the higher education sector in 1993. She has worked as an academic advisor, counsellor, teacher, Head of College, researcher and administrator during this time. 

Although she grew up in rural Texas in the USA, she has been a happy migrant in Australia, mainly Melbourne, since 1989. Frustrated with seeing young rural Australians represented mainly in educational statistical data, Brenda decided to undertake a PhD in order to demonstrate some of the complexities of inequality in education that are hard to measure. Her thesis, ‘Global Routes/Rural Roots: Identity, Rural Women and Higher Education’, was completed at the end of 2007 and won the 2009 Chancellor’s Prize (Social Sciences).  Brenda is currently Principal of St Hilda’s College, University of Melbourne, a residential college at the university.

1 - Brenda Holt


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