Best-selling author, internationally recognized speaker and comedian James Robilotta is all about keeping it real.
While many only share stories that end in heroism, James encourages people to share stories that can be raw, vulnerable and even embarrassing. He believes that this is where people can find the magic. This is how people can truly connect with one another. His life is a testament to this.
In James’ hilarious book, ‘Leading Imperfectly: The value of being authentic for leaders, professionals, and human beings’, he shares with readers how they can learn respect the value of their story and lead through their faults to get great results.
We spent some time with James to learn more about his work and story. In this wide-ranging and candid interview, James shares how comedy has shaped his work, what leading imperfectly means and how we have to take everything we see on the “delightful hot mess “ of social media with a massive grain of salt.
How has your comedy background shaped who you are as a speaker, author and leader?
One of my favorite quotes I talk about in the book and consider a personal mantra is from my friend and colleague, Chris Bruno. He once said to me, “You don’t have to take yourself seriously to take your job seriously.” My leadership, speaking, and writing styles are each heavily impacted by my background in improv and stand-up comedy.
As a leader, I think it is very possible to get people laugh and take you seriously at the same time. I have been told that both my speeches and my writing feel like conversations. As a speaker I use laughter to get people to feel more comfortable. The more you let your guard down, the more likely it is my take-homes will make their way into your life.
What does “leading imperfectly” mean to you?
Leading imperfectly means two things: respect the value of your story and lead through your faults.
Many of us, myself included, frequently move through life thinking that we are not enough. This causes us to start trying to be the person we think everyone wants us to be and we neglect our true self. We start to tell other’s stories, quote cultural icons and share often never-to-be-duplicated acts of heroism, rather than telling those around us about times when we have struggled and how we rose to the occasion to get what we wanted or deserved. We forget that the people we mentor and supervise will become us before they become the world’s next game changers.
Our stories have value to someone and, when told at the right place and the right time, can cause them to realize that it is OK that they are not perfect and they can still achieve their goals while still being a card-carrying member of the imperfect human being club.
In business, we hear a lot about transparency and authenticity. How can leaders and students approach being an authentic leader?
It’s unfortunate that authenticity is becoming overused. But it is because, like most buzzwords, people are just saying it a lot and not backing it up with action.
Authenticity in companies and interactions cannot be spoken into existence; it can only be felt. The first, most important, and hardest step to becoming an authentic leader is owning who you are. That means putting everything about you (your choices, relationships, biases, etc.) in front of the mirror. Becoming more self-aware will allow you to recognize the way your life experiences have shaped who you are and your current-day thought patterns.
After doing so, we then have to make a choice: Do I attempt to cover up my past and make-believe it did not happen, hoping that others will never catch on that I am faking it? Or do I make the courageous step to be vulnerable and tell my supervisee or mentee about where I struggle(d)? Doing so will increase my relatability and in turn make me a safer place for them to turn when they need help or advice. Authentic leaders choose the second scenario.
You write about how we can “learn how to listen to others so they will listen to us.” What are some simple things we can do to be better listeners and vested in the success of others?
Besides doing all of the things we know we are supposed to do: square our shoulders to the person, provide non-verbal feedback that we are paying attention (nod, smile, etc.), and eliminating distractions (put your phone away), there is one other thing we must do: care.
Investing yourself in other’s stories and in their “whys” will transform your business and personal relationships. Networking is all about the other person. If you focus on asking well placed meaningful questions targeted at people’s “whys” then they will immediately feel more relaxed and safe around you. When that happens we have the opportunity to truly impact someone. It’s really hard to get into the castle if the bridge is not down. Show people you care by asking great questions and they will open up to you.
In your book, you point out that we cannot learn things from people who are perfect, we can only learn things from people who are imperfect. How does this work under the lens of social media where everything seems to be perfect?
Oh social media, what a delightful hot mess. Although it is hard to do, it is important to always look at other’s Instagrams, Twitter feeds, Facebook profiles, Snapchat stories, etc. with the intent to simply enjoy the posted content. However, we have to catch ourselves when we start to compare our lives to others’ “#lives.”
I have had people come up to me who follow me on those various platforms and they say, “James I want your life, you’re always doing such cool stuff!” I usually respond with something like, “Yeah, well it would be weird if I Snapchatted portions of my counseling sessions or Instagrammed me crying while watching Pixar movies.”
We have to take what we see other’s posting on social media with a grain of salt. When we over compare ourselves to others, both on and offline, we lose. It’s possible to show a more authentic version of yourself on social media while still maintaining your integrity and I think that’s best done by asking for help. For example, my cousin moved from Colorado, which she loved, to upstate New York to be closer to her family. A couple of days ago she posted this question on her Facebook:
“Question for those who have uprooted their lives and moved far away: how long does it take until you feel like it’s your home? I’ve been in New York for 6 months and even though my family is here, my heart and soul are still in Colorado.”
The responses she has received have been heartfelt, empathetic, and uplifting. So, sure, she has posted beautiful pictures of the sun setting over lakes in upstate New York this summer, but she also showed imperfection in an admirable way.
Antonio Neves is the Director of Higher Education for about.me. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter at @TheAntonioNeves.