Authenticity: How to Become an Authentic Leader

Business has its share of buzzwords and none is more pervasive these days than “authenticity.” It’s not surprising. With high levels of mistrust of big business and institutions, people are feeling disillusioned and manipulated. By seeking out the authentic—what is real, genuine, original—businesses strive to connect with stakeholders to create a more honest experience. This is a worthy ideal.

But what should we beware of in pursuit of the authentic?

Authenticity can be used as an excuse to not step outside your comfort zone. A study by Herminia Ibarra found that managers who are “true to selfers” often fail to try new things; they use authenticity as an excuse for sticking to familiar and often counter-productive behaviours. “True to selfers” may be less good at selling their ideas and themselves and at processing negative feedback.

Authenticity can be confused with unnecessary candour. We may find Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell entertaining, but would you want to work with them? Respect and good manners still go a long way in building positive relationships.

Authenticity can be compromised by outside forces. Take social media. You may decide to speak from the heart about your business, posting things that help people connect with who you are. Soon enough, though, you’ll find certain posts achieve greater shares and likes and before long your “authentic” self has been conditioned to post what people want to see.

Authenticity can force too much introspection. Obsessing about who we think we are, rather than who we can become, isn’t helpful. The antidote is to take action, move forward, and put excessive introspection on the back burner. That helps us be open to new experiences and learn new things.

Authenticity can make others feel uncomfortable. You may advance your authenticity at the expense of your business or relationships. Dress codes, negotiating tactics, social interactions are just some of the factors you may have to temper.

Authenticity can quickly become unauthentic if you believe there is only one way to articulate your story. All too often, authenticity is interpreted through the lens of the North American hero—the individual triumphing over adversity, self-disclosing, vulnerable but victorious. Watch any reality TV show and the formula is there. But that doesn’t make it real or authentic. Be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of expressing yourself as a cliché.

Authenticity can be easily co-opted by marketers crafting messages that only appear true and genuine. Just because it sounds authentic doesn’t mean it is. Being deceptive in how you present yourself and your organization is neither sustainable nor good business.

So what can you do to find your pocket of truth and become a more authentic person and leader in your business? Hermina Ibarra suggests four paths:

  1. Adopt a playful frame of mind
    Don’t be rigid in how you see yourself. Being open to new experiences makes you more likely to discover things about yourself and your business.
  2. Learn from diverse role models
    Borrow styles and tactics. Emulate people you admire. Be a chameleon: try out different things. People who do this find an authentic style much faster.
  3. Work on getting better
    Don’t expect to get everything right all of the time. Try, refine, and adjust. Experimenting with who you are, pushing yourself, and expanding your perspective are all essential to finding out what makes you tick. This quest never ends.
  4. Don’t stick to your story
    How many of you were told in childhood something that continues to define how you see yourself today, good or bad? We all have experiences that have shaped us. But humans are more than the sum of how others define us and our experiences. Our stories change over time according to the challenges we confront, as do our companies. The stories we tell should not only reflect our past and our hopes for the future but should be respectful and aware of the people with whom we interact.

You can be the authentic leader we all admire and create the kind of authentic business we would all like to support. Just beware of the pitfalls, be open to opportunity, and strive on.


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