How we become our better selves - Thomas Swaak

ingevoerd op 17-05-2018

Who are the people that make you feel as if your heart would burst, your mind could soar to unchartered heights, that you would dare your best simply by virtue of having them around? We all have memories and actual people in our lives whose mere presence ignites the best of what we have to give, who naturally guide us to the spaces and places where our youth, our vigor, our boundless dreams gather to carry us towards action, reflection and the tenacity to manifest great achievements in our personal and professional lives. And what is the common denominator to those spirited and hearts whose presence we treasure so much?

Authenticity. People like that are uncompromisingly, unreservedly themselves. That kind of authenticity is what sets true leaders, great friends, and unforgettable colleagues apart, it is the bedrock upon which success and breakthroughs are built. The question arises though: how did they get to where they are? What enables them to be authentic, to cross the great divide of what is considered de rigueur, socially acceptable, the common denominator, the average way of being which makes it safe to operate without offending anyone’s sensibilities, or political and social proclivities? Five steps towards being authentic. That’s all it takes if you ask me. Let’s explore!


Be comfortable in your own skin, and share it!

I have a friend and former colleague who is a compact, below average height, loud-mouthed, well dressed bullet of a man. His eyes are always on the edge of laughter, his arms are always in motion when he talks, and he smokes big fat outsized cigars whenever he has a chance. He is also the guy who can call me at 2 in the morning with the most impossible business demand knowing that I will show up at a moment’s notice. His brand of authenticity? He makes no excuses for who he is, what he does, or how he says things. He has a no-holds barred talent for telling it like it is to his consultancy clients while at the same time communicating his passion for making things work, making them right, and ensuring that everyone gets a piece of the pie. Once he has said his piece, he will careen and cajole the person at the receiving end of his unique blend of brawn and bluster until that person has thrown everything that concerns him on the table in no uncertain terms – giving as much space as he takes…that is part of the recipe.

Part of his authenticity also consists of his innate sense of loyalty to his merry band of brothers and sisters who throw themselves at the impossible deadlines and solutions he has outlined to the people who trust him. At the end of one of our programs he did the unforgettable: he invited our team to a dinner, including spouses, partners, boy-girlfriends. And then managed to gleefully focus the entire evening on the families of the team, giving them a gift of flowers and wine, and making them the center of his speeches and toasts that evening. He made no bones about it at the start of the evening, saying to his own team: this is not about you  folks. This is about the amazing people who make you possible.


Be a fearless learner

Part of becoming amazing, and amazingly authentic, resides in our willingness and desire to learn. One of my favorite inspirational books is the biography of Rudolph Nureyev called “In the Slipstream of a Comet”. This incredible artist, who at one time was the world’s if not best, then most famous dancer, had one routine from which he never wavered one day in his life. Every morning he would go to the dance studio and stand at the back of the group of aspirant, aspiring and accomplished dancers and follow the master class of the day, eagerly absorbing movements and steps he had done a thousand times as if it were for the first time. He had an insatiable thirst for learning, taking his first steps in modern dance from dancers with less than a tenth of his stature, but to him, the more fulfilled because they could do something he had never seen or tried before. And he would never quit on a choreography until he had it down to its last detail, working harder and longer than some of his younger colleagues.

This drive towards relentless learning also comes with a certain sense of  humility that arrives with knowing how much there is always still to learn and know in this all too human endeavor we call life. People who are authentic ask questions in an unselfconscious way – their aim is to get at the knowledge and insight they do not yet possess, and then to share the bejesus out of it once they get there. Fearless learners, both in their manner and in their ability to examine inward what they still need to learn and practice. Honoring knowledge and skills at any level, with an eagerness to garner insights and understand how things work, while giving the recognition and praise that anyone who takes pride in what they do is happy to receive. Now, in addition to learning, there is an ingredient of laughter which makes up authenticity, and that is what this next installment is about.


Undaunted laughter, at yourself, at life

“You see these shoulders? You know what I can do with them? Pull them up very high and drop them again” – This ultimate act of relativism and gentle humor was visited upon me by one of my favorite professors of American literature after I had unloaded upon him my worries about our professional theater production of Goethe’s Faust. You see, the whole thing had been falling apart at the seams during the final rehearsals, what with the two leads having a spat after starting a romantic interlude on the side and leaving right in the middle of things, the costume designers threatening to walk off because there was too much work, and the antique hourglass having smashed itself to smithereens for some unfathomable reason that no one could be certain to identify. While I was boiling over with worry, he was simply smiling at me and showing me what I call jazzy hands, throwing them up in the air and taking the mickey out of the tension I was generating. He kept his authentic upbeat energy going by refusing to take anything that happened, nor himself, too seriously. Humor and laughter were the tools he used to create a sense of space and levity around life’s vagaries, so that whoever was with him could breathe a little more easily, and find a few more ways to take on the challenges that presented themselves. He made me want to follow his example – to create that kind of ease from a relaxed stance in looking at life for what it is…from time to time I get it right, and see the release in tension and fear around me, as we let our hair down and get to grips with what needs to be done.


Speaking from the heart when it matters

Part of getting things done through being authentic also resides in speaking from the heart when it matters. Picture this: a Caribbean island, so small that in the middle you can see the ocean on both sides, warm winds, incredible weather, and the assignment of a lifetime – reorganizing a government department that had been trying to do so for the better part of three years, in 7 months. With a free hand in determining the approach that needed to be taken. And an office near the sea. Heaven right? Well, almost. Shortly after I arrived to take on the job, an anonymous donor of friendly news had left a clipping on my desk from the local newspaper trumpeting the arrival of an expensive consultant who was expected to make an even bigger mess than the government itself and have the taxpayer cough up an exorbitant fee in the process. The unions had let me know in not so subtle ways that I was not welcome in their midst. And the governing body of the department had let me know that I would be reporting to them as program manager: the entire scope of the reorganization was about to land in my lap. And they would be second-guessing from the sidelines.

So rather than getting all strategic and multi-level stakeholder on their conviction that this was the right way to go, I asked to join one of their management team meetings and 15 minutes of their time. And when the day and the time came, I closed my laptop, put down my pen, stood up, walked up to the front of the room and spoke my heart. I told them that if they wanted me as a program manager they would have the easiest job in the world going forward, because they could hold me accountable for whatever they pleased, and hold me hostage to the rate they were paying me. I asked them if they saw anything familiar in that scenario. And luckily one person spoke up and mentioned that it looked exactly like that of my predecessor, who had been spectacularly unsuccessful. “You’re right” I said. “And I would rather give back this incredible assignment and be on my way tomorrow, than to repeat the same journey this guy took. It’s not worth it to me. Nor should it be to you.” You could have heard a pin drop at that point. In a highly politicized environment this was what was known as a career limiting move. I did not care at that stage. I could see so clearly what was needed, and what to avoid, I simply spoke off the cuff and asked them to put skin in the game, to take me on board as temporary member of the board, and for all of us to take on part of the accountability of the reorganization. Silence again, and a grin from the head of the department, who ultimately said that yes, we could do it that way. Later on she told me that it was so clear that I was reaching out in all sincerity that it was not difficult to allow my message to land and to take action on it. Speaking my heart when it mattered really helped in putting a successful way of working in place for the months to come.


Connecting in order to give

Now, in addition to speaking from the heart, authenticity also comes into full bloom through the way we connect. How exactly it works is not fully clear to me, but within the first few seconds that someone interacts with me, I can tell whether they are coming to give or coming to get. And what I have noticed, is that when someone connects primarily to give, I am tempted to give back, and ultimately do so wholeheartedly. And the giving can come in many ways: giving someone the time to express their feelings before moving on to the actions that need to taken in order to address a problem. Giving compassion when you see that the colleague who is not meeting your deadline needs a listening ear more than a push towards a performance indicator. Giving energy when the person whose help you need appears tired or forlorn, and giving new opportunities to someone whom I am asking to do the same thing for me for the fourth time. A great mentor of mine once said to me: “Thomas, what I try to do with each person who comes to see me, and each person whom I reach out to, is to determine what they need, what they need to be successful, to move forward, to feel that they are tackling things effectively, to have the assurance that they are also meeting my needs. That’s the thing: start with the underlying question to every human interaction – what do you need? And once  you have a sense of that, meet that need as best you can and move forward to achieve whatever it is you have in mind.” It is some of the best advice I have ever gotten from someone whose authenticity created a safe and sometimes necessarily challenging haven for a dialogue that always made a positive difference to me.

So there you have it. Get comfortable in your own skin, and don’t skimp on sharing it. Learn fearlessly, sincerely question things in any circumstance, laugh at what life throws at you & infect others with your laughter. Speak from the heart when it matters, and always connect in order to give, no matter how great your own need. Taken together that spells authenticity, which in turn enables success in personal and professional life. Worth giving a try? It certainly is to me.


Thomas Swaak is an expert in innovation driven transformation, change management, program management & implementation, group dynamics, team excellence and Lean/Agile. He works fulltime at Philips Innovation Services/Industry Consulting ( and runs a private practice as an integrative coach/counselor – (

Thomas Thomas