Authentic Leadership: Speak Up and Stand Out

March 11, 2019

It’s 5pm and Anne Doepner is leaving work to get home to her two children, ages 7 and 5.

She makes no excuses for this.

“I firmly believe that if we don’t have something bucking against the culture, you’ll never get women into these roles,” she says.

The role is Director of Football Administration for the Minnesota Vikings. Anne is one of only a few women in the NFL with that title and knows of only one other doing the work she does, negotiating player contracts.

After 12 years in the league she feels she’s proven her value. Now she wants to use her influence to set an example about what “real life” looks like.

Anne Doepner

Anne Doepner

For Anne, that means not hiding the demands of working motherhood and that elusive “work-life” balance.

“I can get my job done and still be there for my kids,” Anne says.

She’s staring down 40 and finally feels able to lead as her authentic self. 

Bill George’s 2003 book, “Authentic Leadership” brought the concept of leading with authenticity to the masses. Authentic leaders are genuine, transparent and trustworthy. They reveal and abide by their core values. They walk the talk. And in doing so, they help others to march on.

In a league still very much dominated by men, Anne is upfront about the challenges of parenting on career advancement. 

“Maybe I would have advanced faster without balancing family time but it comes down to what’s more important to you. It doesn’t apply just to moms but to fathers too,” she says, noting that men struggle even more than women to get societal permission to take time away form work for fatherhood.

“We need to normalize that and encourage flexibility for both working mothers and fathers.”

Anne’s husband Aaron works full-time in sales. Together, they balance family life, job responsibilities and scheduling.

Compromise is important, both at home and at work. Anne relies on the same authenticity to build trust and connection when negotiations with agents get heated.

Anne started her career with the Vikings in 2006 as an administrative assistant in what she says was the “right place, right time” to grow with the organization. She learned contract structure and collective bargaining on the job and within three years moved up to the managerial level. In 2016, she was named director.

Anne Doepner

photo credit: NFL

Despite her success, with few other women doing her type of work, Anne says it can be lonely.

So she connects with other women through an internal networking group, Vikings Women, and the WISE (Women in Sports and Events) Twin Cities chapter. Meeting like-minded colleagues and mentoring younger women has helped create supportive connections. 

And motherhood is not the only challenge Anne has been vocal about. Last year she wrote on LinkedIn about her struggles with panic and anxiety disorder, something she was diagnosed with early in her career.

“For a long time the messaging I got was you cannot let anyone at work know you have this because they’ll perceive you differently and you might not get opportunities you’d otherwise get. And that never sat well with me. It gave me anxiety about my anxiety to think that I needed to hide it.”

She received “overwhelmingly” positive response to her post. Dozens sent private messages, applauding her honesty and admitting either their own struggles with anxiety or those of someone they cared about. 

“It’s a relief to hear other people talk about it,” she says. “Normalization is a big deal. You realize your heroes aren’t perfect either.”

The response encouraged her to be unabashedly herself and to encourage others to honor themselves the same way. 

“It doesn’t have to hold people back,” says Anne.

Anne Doepner

Anne with her family

So, how to lead authentically? 

Believe in Yourself:  “Know that you deserve to be where you are,” Anne says. “If you’re afraid to bring anything to the table, you’re not going to grow and nothing will change.”

A positive and realistic demonstration can have a “ripple effect” on company culture.

Speak Up: “In a homogenous environment when we’re doing things the way they’ve always been done, it can be hard to speak up,” Anne explains. “Anytime you have a great idea that nobody else is seeing, be vocal about it.”

Avoid group think by adding individuality.

Add to the Culture: “Instead of trying to conform to the culture, I try to add to the culture,” Anne says.“You can lead from the best place if you are bringing your full self to work every day.”

By conforming, you’re likely to leave out strong and valuable parts of yourself that worthy of acknowledgement.

Be Patient: “Change and acceptance don’t happen overnight,” Anne notes. “It’s a process.

Businesses can support authentic leadership by encouraging executives to serve as allies to people different from them.

“Leaders need to foster a culture that involves listening and understanding and not presuming what it would be like to go through the world as someone who looks different than you,” Anne says.

Increasing diversity in fields where there is underrepresentation is also important.

“Everyone’s story is different,” Anne says. “For me, coming up in this profession is a completely different experience than for a man. What’s tough is when people don’t believe me that it’s been harder. We need to encourage an atmosphere where everyone is going to be listened to.”


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Valerie Gordon, Commander-in-She


Valerie Gordon is an Emmy-winning television producer and the founder of career and communication firm, Commander-in-She. She uses the principles of storytelling in her workshops and presentations to help women with the skills and tools necessary to own their story, create their personal brand and ascend the leadership ladder.

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