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Authentic Leadership Isn’t Always About “Being Yourself”

Anyone who looks at my leadership coaching practice website can see what a strong proponent I am of authentic leadership. Research over the past few decades has shown time and again that leaders truly are made – not born, and that authentic leadership comes from our life stories, personal values and abilities to demonstrate resonant leadership behaviors with those we lead.[i]

As strongly as I believe in authentic leadership however, that belief comes with some caveats. One is that “being authentic” doesn’t mean staying true to oneself at all costs. In fact, choosing to be ourselves at all costs can serve as a de-railer, especially when the best of what we’re bringing to the leadership game is no longer enough. One of my clients, whom I’ll call Dave, demonstrated this as he talked to me about a personality clash that he was having with another leader in his organization who found his style to be insensitive and harmful. As we talked through the situation, Dave insisted that while he wanted some help in navigating this rocky relationship, he didn’t want it if it meant changing who he was or acting inconsistently with his values.

What’s a leader to do, you might ask? As coaching with Dave progressed, our conversations ended up focusing on just what it meant for Dave to be authentic, and ultimately resulted in an opportunity to level up who he saw as his true self. Through our conversations, I was reminded of the authentic leadership findings of organizational psychologists and professors Drs. Adam Grant and Herminia Ibarra.

Grant highlights three rules leaders need to adhere to while being authentic[ii]:

1. Credibility – Make sure you have some status and established credibility before deciding to use colorful behavior or self-deprecating humor. This ensures you’ve established your competence before showing a vulnerability.

2. Don’t Be an Authentic Jerk – In Grant’s words, authenticity without empathy is just selfish. Always consider the impact on the other person when choosing to be yourself.

3. Be True to Your True Self – Which self are you committed to being true to? Your self today? Five years ago? Your ideal future self?

Ibarra shares similar tips for dealing with what she calls the “Authenticity Paradox.”[iii] She talks about the “What got you here, won’t get you there” moments leaders often encounter in their journeys. Rather than refusing to act differently because we see it as a violation of our values and who we are, she encourages a reframing of authenticity. Drawing on the Greek origins of the word which generally means “that which we do with our own hands,” Dr. Ibarra implores leaders to see authenticity as an action rather than a trait. When viewed this way, we can continually experiment with who we are and be authentic in continually developing our best selves.

As Dave approached being authentic in this way, he saw how being his true self was a work in progress and that how he showed up authentically with others could be modified based on the situation and people with whom he was interacting. In short, Dave found he could still be an authentic leader even if it meant not acting as his ‘former’ self.

[i] George, B. (2015). Discover your true north, revised, and updated. John Wiley & Sons.

[ii] Ted. (2020, April 6). Worklife with Adam Grant: Authenticity is a double-edged sword on Apple Podcasts. Apple Podcasts. Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/authenticity-is-a-double-edged-sw….

[iii] The authenticity paradox | professor Herminia Ibarra ... (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIjI3TmEzrs.

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