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Dr. Martin Davidson is associate professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he also serves as associate dean and chief diversity officer. He blogs at Leveraging Difference
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Make your uniqueness visible

Question: You've been asked to give a commencement speech to this year's college graduates about their role as future leaders. Give us the two or three key paragraphs from your address.

The greatest enemy you will face in your role as future leaders is you.  I work with profoundly talented people, some of whom are successful leaders, and some of whom are not. The difference is not in intelligence, education or even willingness to work hard. Rather it is in how able a person is to accept him or herself. And that means accepting both flaws and virtues.

Accepting flaws means knowing where we are imperfect and being willing to work to improve in those areas. It means not beating yourself up because you aren’t getting it right. It means being able to forgive yourself for not achieving your ideal goals and aspirations. And it means rolling up your sleeves and starting over once again. The very best leaders I know are used to failure. They measure themselves not by how much they fail, but how often they can persist and improve on those setbacks.

Accepting one’s virtues is a little different. That requires you to skillfully strike a balance between the tendency to indulge in your strengths and success and the tendency to discount them. Some people have big heads and can’t wait to tell the world how great they are; their hubris undermines their leadership. But others conceal their strengths in modesty or silence. Sometimes they think they are being team players or are avoiding being egotists. But more often than not, they are, ironically, just being selfish. Having a gift—a strength or a success—and hiding it is not a virtue. You do a disservice to all the people who can be helped by learning about and learning from your strength. You have to be able to share your strengths and successes openly and without ego. It’s not easy to navigate between arrogance and excessive shyness. But great leaders learn to do it.

Accepting yourself—whether the flaws or the virtues—means not being afraid to be whoever you are. Let that self-acceptance begin with striving to express yourself authentically. Be willing to share your mistakes and your achievements alike. One of the greatest barriers to being ourselves is the fear that we won't be accepted by our peers. We fear that if we really reveal some parts of ourselves, we'll be ostracized because we aren’t like most people. But the truth is that none of us are like most people. We all bring uniqueness to every encounter and to every relationship. Make that uniqueness visible. It is your greatest advantage.

View all panel responses to our discussion about the best words of wisdom to give this year’s graduates. Here are some of them:

Alan Webber: Do everything on purpose

Marie Wilson: Help a country hungry for its heart

Angel Cabrera: Do good!

Juana Bordas: Transform your community

John Baldoni: Believe in what you can achieve

George Reed: Care enough to lead

Amy Fraher: Commit to ethical thinking

Carol Goman: Rewire your brain

Martin Davidson  | May 12, 2011 9:38 AM

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