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"...the expression of one's authentic self is a complicated and contrived act. All authentic leaders are complicated and contrived." Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, "Managing Authenticity: The Paradox of Great Leadership"

Wait; doesn't "authentic" mean true to oneself? Genuine. Without artifice or contrivance? And isn't authenticity an essential component of leadership in the 21st century? Yes, but... In the context of leadership, adhering to a rigid, or limited, definition of authenticity can be problematic. Why - and how can we redefine, and lead with, authenticity so it empowers enhanced results?

What's the Problem?

Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning, and Professor of Organizational Behavior, argues "a simplistic understanding of what [authenticity] means can hinder your growth and limit your impact."

How? Ibarra points to an employee in a health care organization who earns a promotion to general manager. This role increases the amount of direct reports for whom she is responsible 10-fold, and the newly minted manager is understandably nervous. She believes in transparent leadership, so that's exactly what she tells her people.

"I want to do this job, but it's scary, and I need your help."

Take a second and imagine what you would do if you were a direct report hearing this from your manager. That's what happened. People lost confidence in her ability to take charge, and she undermined her own leadership.

"Grappling with Authenticity"

In situations like this - situations that call for us to move into new roles or assume greater responsibilities, change our game, work within different cultural expectations, or maintain a "public" or "social" persona that may clash with our private identities - we're stretched beyond our comfort zones.

And during these times, we tend to feel a "strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities." Thrust into circumstances in which we're shaky, nervous, or uncertain, "we often retreat to familiar behaviors and styles." That is, we act "authentically" - and, in doing so, may subvert our own attempts to lead effectively.

Through her extensive research, Professor Ibarra identified several situations in which leaders "grapple" with authenticity:

Taking Charge in an Unfamiliar Role

Leaders know that they must hit the ground running upon assuming a role - but how they do that varies. Some "chameleons," as Ibarra calls them, adapt to their roles without feeling like fakes. They can "mask their vulnerability with bluster," and try on new approaches, like new sets of clothes, until they find a good fit.

The risk chameleons run, of course, is being seen as disingenuous. But perhaps this is less hazardous than the alternative - expressing exactly what we think and feel, like our aforementioned general manager. Exposing our vulnerabilities like this isn't "authentic;" it's poor strategy. The challenge is "finding the right mix of distance and closeness in an unfamiliar situation." That is, you need to figure out how to project authority (e.g. "I've got this") and approachability (e.g. "I need your input and perspective to get the best results").

Selling Your Ideas - and Yourself

Many leaders, especially those who Ibarra calls "true-to-selfers," find it difficult to sell or pitch their ideas to their team. Their work should speak for itself and that they shouldn't have to engage in what they believe is "political" manoeuvring. Because of this hesitancy, true-to-selfers inhibit results.

Processing Negative Feedback

Bigger role, bigger stakes. This is where many leaders encounter significant negative feedback, often for the first time in their careers. True-to-selfers "convince themselves that dysfunctional aspects of their 'natural' style are the inevitable price of being effective." For example, a leader who is seen as moody or tempestuous may think that his "tough" style is necessary for results.

In these situations, true-to-selfers believe that they're being authentic. In fact, they're limiting their efficacy as leaders. Ibarra writes, "Without the benefit of what I call outsight-the valuable external perspective we get from experimenting with new leadership behaviors-habitual patterns of thought and action fence us in."

Adaptively Authentic

A "simplistic" definition of authenticity may lead us to expose weaknesses, or fail to correct them, in an effort to be completely transparent and genuine. More effective, says Ibarra, is becoming "adaptively authentic."

Goffee and Jones concur: Great leaders, they write, "are like chameleons, capable of adapting to the demands of the situations they face and the people they lead..."

Ibarra advises, "Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself...That's not being a fake; it's how we experiment to figure out what's right for the new challenges and circumstances we face."

How do you try on new selves? Ibarra suggests three ways to get started:

  • Learn from multiple role models. Take best practices and thinking from various strong leaders, and make them your own. Fake it until you find what works for you.
  • Work on improving. Learn, grow, and set goals. Don't protect "your comfortable old self." Rather, take opportunities to explore new leadership styles.
  • Don't stick to your story. We all have personal narratives, stories that we tell ourselves. These can define us - and fence us in. Edit your story. Rewrite it. Throw it away and start from scratch.
    • Ibarra writes, "The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are." When we can do that, we can become adaptively authentic - and better equipped to meet the demands of our roles, teams, and organizations place on us.


Larry Hart

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