Editor's Notes: Brett Kaufman showed us how leadership is authenticity

Katy Smith
Brett Kaufman at the Columbus Chamber's Annual Meeting Feb. 6.

I’m going to hazard a guess that most people at the Columbus Chamber’s Annual Meeting Feb. 6, like me, didn’t at all expect what they were about to hear. We’d just finished our Greater Columbus Convention Center breakfast and the program had launched into three keynotes, the first by Columbus Zoo & Aquarium EVP for external affairs Janelle Coleman, who delivered a warm tribute to her Cleveland family’s staycations, which were filled with adventures on a modest budget.

Earlier in the morning, we’d heard from Chamber President and CEO Don DePerro, who beamed with pride as he shared his team’s success in growing memberships 65 percent to 2,139 from 1,288 over four years.

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We’d applauded as Big Lots EVP Lisa Bachmann received the annual Columbus Award, joining a line of leaders that stretches back to the chamber’s 1964 founding.

We’d waited with anticipation as three small business owners were introduced as candidates for the annual Small Business Leader Award. Many congratulations to Rachel Friedman of Tenfold, who took home the award; and to Brad Griffith of Buckeye Interactive and Lynsey Jordan of Permit Solutions for being named finalists.

And we’d breakfasted on some sort of apple pie accompanied by a sweet-potato casserole (it was dark, so I’m not completely sure what I ate).

Then real estate developer Brett Kaufman took the stage and things got very real.

He opened with, “I have to tell you, I have never given this speech before, and I have never spoken to an audience of this size, so I’m a little nervous.”

He thanked the crowd of 1,200, and rolled right into: “I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy,” (the crowd began to chuckle)—“and I’m not just talking about what it took to get onstage today.”

Kaufman has made a name with his vision that physical spaces such as housing developments can nurture our spirits through art, community programming, design that encourages human interaction and chances to give back.

His desire to help others has, as of late, been funneled into self-expression in blogs and other written pieces; a new podcast named after his most significant project, Gravity; and a venture called Innerspace that de-stigmatizes going to therapy and creates a place where wellness practitioners can work together.

All of these things led up to the moment Feb. 6 when he shared pieces of his most personal story with 1,200 of us at a chamber of commerce breakfast.

“I believe before we can start ‘leveling up,’ we have to go back and really look at who we are in our core,” he told us, referring to the event’s theme, “Level Up.” People are born pure, with a divine energy and purpose, he says, and then “life happens. Our societal expectations, our parental programming, our childhoods, our traumas, they start to sink in and take hold and take us away from that purpose.”

In sharing his story of growing up with an abusive biological father, building up that robotic armor of conformity so many of us wear, and then spending decades trying to get back to the sensitive, artistic person he is at his core, Brett Kaufman was in that moment the foremost leader in a room full of formidable leaders.

Such vulnerability takes tremendous courage, and tomorrow’s leaders must be vulnerable—available, real, human, authentic—if they want to connect with their teams and truly inspire them to do great things.

Katy Smith is editor ofColumbus CEO.