In today’s workplace, being labeled authentic or an authentic leader has become synonymous with being at the top of your game and considered the gold standard so many aspire to achieve.
Sounds great, right?
Well not so fast. In a world where we are inundated by the latest term, acronym or label, it’s easy to fall prey to a word that’s highly overused but often misunderstood.
“No true greatness was ever achieved without great opposition” – Dov Baron, Inc. Mag Top 100 Leadership Speaker
Enter the authentic leader and the confusion, cost and challenge that accompanies this new and widely used label:
For many the challenge begins with the actual meaning of the word. If you look it up, there are a few different but equally convincing definitions that could apply. The overarching theme is one around being true to your own personality, spirit or character – but that still lends itself to a lot of interpretation.
What many people don’t realize is that there are two fundamentally different types of authenticity which people collapse all the time:
- Emotional authenticity represents the value of allowing your “true feelings to be known.” This is the quality that most people equate with authenticity.
- Strategic authenticity places the emphasis is on being true to your goals rather than to your feelings.
Leaders who embody strong emotional authenticity are potentially capable of forging stronger bonds across the organization because a sense of mutual trust develops when the other person knows how they feel. Strategic authenticity is a bit different. This type of authenticity is focused on being true to one’s goals rather than feelings. The fact is, leadership is about people and relationships and the best leaders know this and display a high level of EQ within the workplace. Knowing when and how to place your emotions to the side in service of performing your duties takes both practice, skill and heart.
Leaders are faced daily with tough situations that require tougher decisions. The challenge lies in the landscape of uncertainty these decisions live. So much of life in (and out of) the workplace is steeped in the unknown and knowing what to do and say can leave even the best leaders scratching their heads. Finding the right balance when it comes to sharing with others is part art and part science. Just as you can have too little authenticity, you can also have too much. The great leaders understand and practice this daily, but that doesn’t mean it there isn’t a cost associated with it.
When researching the impact and cost of being authentic, I went directly to the source and someone I admire within his field of work – Adam Grant. In an article from the World Economic Forum, his work points to three costs of being too authentic:
- Failing to grow. INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra finds that if you’re deeply concerned with being true to yourself, you’re at risk for sticking rigidly to that self instead of evolving and changing.
- Over-sharing. In her inspiring book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown has written thoughtfully about how vulnerability is not the same as oversharing. But evidence suggests that oversharing is more likely when authenticity is important to you. In two studies, psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman found that people who are motivated to express their true selves post more personally revealing and emotional content on Facebook. Other researchers have suggested that people who want to be seen authentically are more likely to share information that jeopardizes their professional relationships. Aiming to be highly authentic leads us to filter less.
- Feeling inferior. Studies in companies and controlled experiments show that people are less creative and less helpful when they work for highly authentic leaders who have a strong sense of their values. I’ve watched this happen with highly authentic Fortune 500 CEOs and military generals: their junior colleagues don’t feel courageous or vulnerable enough. They stay silent, even though that’s the exact opposite of what authentic leadership is supposed to promote.
There are many challenges with being authentic in the workplace. So many in fact, that in my research for both my book and this article – I was left with more questions than answers. From a professional stand point, the Harvard Business Review article “The Authenticity Paradox” does a wonderful job summarizing authentic leadership and goes on to state three main challenges:
- Leaders make more-frequent and more-radical changes in the kinds of work they do. As they strive to improve their game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps them navigate choices and progress toward their goals. But when looking to change their game, a too rigid self-concept becomes an anchor that keeps them from moving forward.
- In global business, leaders work with people who don’t share their cultural norms and have different expectations for how they should behave. It can often seem as if they have to choose between what is expected—and therefore effective—and what feels authentic.
- Identities are always on display in today’s world of ubiquitous connectivity and social media. How we present ourselves—not just as executives but as people, with quirks and broader interests—has become an important aspect of leadership. Having to carefully curate a persona that’s out there for all to see can clash with our private sense of self.
Another really interesting take on being authentic comes from the framework “The Three Selves” which states the following:
The Three Selves is a continuum that provides a more nuanced way of understanding authentic behavior. It shows that, rather than being either “authentic” or “inauthentic,” each of us possesses the following three selves: the Authentic Self, the Adapted Self, and the Performing Self.
- The Authentic Self is an expression of your core values, beliefs, needs, desires, thoughts, emotions, and traits—and how you would behave if you didn’t fear the consequences of your behavior. This is the truest reflection of who you are and, given this, being your Authentic Self feels amazing.
- On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Performing Self. This is who you are when you feel like you don’t have a choice but to conform or mask aspects of your true self. It’s the carefully constructed persona that you project to protect against what you fear will happen by being yourself.
- Between these two ways of being lies the Adapted Self. This is the self that most of us have never contemplated, but that has the power to change our lives, and our perceptions of ourselves. The Adapted Self is who you are when you make a choice to change an aspect of your behavior, in order to meet your own needs or others’ needs. When you adapt, you’re not driven by fear – you’re driven by an authentic desire to change your behavior. Because you’re making a choice willingly, it feels good to do.
In conclusion, there is no one right way to be an authentic leader but there are some common qualities you can learn and adopt which many of the best leaders possess. Start by truly getting to know yourself and understand what you like, dislike and the potential triggers that will keep you from being present. Learn to connect with other people while exhibiting humility, vulnerability and a sincere desire to care for others wellbeing (hint – hone your EQ skills). Lastly, request feedback early and often from people so you can learn as you go and discover who you are and how you show up. Remember, you can’t be a leader if you have no one to lead.
The floor is yours: How challenging is it to create a workplace culture that allows authentic behavior?