Earlier this year, I read a great article in HBR by Herminia Ibarra about ‘The Authenticity Paradox.’ More and more, leaders are encouraged to “be true to yourself” because it helps with generating inspiration and creating buy-in from teams. However, authenticity can also be an obstacle for professional and personal growth which absolutely matches my own experience in coaching senior executives.
As Ibarra points out, the emphasis on authenticity has grown steadily mainstream since Bill George’s book Authentic Leadership was first published in 2003. Since then, more companies have been expecting leaders to leverage their compassion and vulnerability as much as their charisma and intelligence. Moreover, I don’t see the zeitgeist for this changing any time soon, especially with all of the unique demands and cultural norms of the millennial generation.
However, some parts of successful leadership are about “doing the right thing” for the business or the team, even when it is not natural or easy for the leader. For instance, I was coaching an executive that had made authenticity a big part of his leadership brand (which is a very good thing) and was promoted into a position that was making him feel less secure and confident, especially as his mandate was to penetrate a market segment his company had failed in previously. We discussed how he could either share his trepidation or hide it from his people and his superiors. While his gut instinct was “be authentic,” my advice was to project an air of much higher confidence than he really felt, because his people and the business needed someone in that position to be optimistic and positive as they moved forward into uncharted waters.
Basically, he and I agreed that authenticity was his default approach, but that he needed to flex that style when situations clearly required him to get out of his comfort zone. Similarly, I frequently have conversations with other executives who:
- are naturally assertive, but need to sit back and listen on occasion
- are extraordinarily fast and execution driven, but at times need to slow down to help bring others along
- have deep moral beliefs but work hard to make sure those beliefs don’t get in the way of best motivating the diverse teams underneath them