“Be authentic!” today’s leaders are urged. But what if they don’t know how? Worse yet, what if — in being authentic — they bare their soul to their direct reports in a way that causes them to lose confidence in said leader?
Herminia Ibarra, a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, tackles this subject in the cover story of the Jan/Feb Harvard Business Review, “The Authenticity Paradox.” Today’s leaders are under pressure to be “their true selves” as an antidote to the record-low levels of trust and engagement among employees today, she writes. However, new leaders also have a relatively short time frame in which to gain the trust and confidence of their direct reports — should they unwittingly alienate or lose the confidence of those employees within that time by failing to adapt their leadership style to the situational demands, then their goals will be that much harder to achieve.
Ibarra cites the examples of “Cynthia” and “George.” Promoted into a high-visibility role that included a 10-fold increase in the number of her direct reports, Cynthia sought to establish her role as a leader who valued transparency and collaboration by sharing with them her trepidation and need for their help. But her candor backfired when she lost credibility with people who were looking for a strong leader. George, an executive at an auto-parts company where chain-of-command and consensus were paramount, felt conflicted when the company was acquired by a firm with a much more freewheeling culture: Urged by his supervisor to sell himself and his ideas more aggressively, George felt he was being pressured to be a “fake” by subsuming his modest nature.
Career advancement requires most of us to move beyond our comfort zones at some point, writes Ibarra. Yet, because going against our true inclinations can make us feel like impostors, “we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable,” she writes.
However, moments like these can help us grow into better leaders — if we take advantage of them, writes Ibarra:
The moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs.
Learning often begins with behaviors that may feel unnatural and fake to us, says Ibarra. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and to ultimately become better leaders “is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.”