Leadership feels awkward sometimes. There's a strange paradox in wanting to be seen as 'authentic', whilst needing to behave in ways that don't always feel like they're really you.
Advancing in our careers requires all of us to move outside of our comfort zones. Yet, at the same time, those advances sometimes trigger a strong urge to protect our identities. That urge often arises out of fear - what if we don't perform well or measure-up in a new setting?
For me, leadership is a bit like a pair of new shoes. It's something that needs to be tried on, maybe one foot at a time. They might need adjusting, through a bit of trial and error, to expand what feels comfortable. But sometimes we can stretch those shoes a little too far, or too fast - it's always important to leave room for the fact that some might not enjoy wearing leadership.
The words 'authenticity' and 'leadership' have become intertwined in recent years. In fact, since 2008 the number of articles that mention the word authenticity in headlines has risen dramatically:
Whilst I understand what's intended, I do have an issue with the semantics.
In her book 'Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader', Herminia Ibarra presents three potential definitions of authenticity, and the problems that each pose:
I imagine most would characterise authenticity as 'behaving the way you always have' - but for me that equation doesn't quite add-up. To survive in a modern workplace, emotional and political sensitivity must act as filters which sometimes hold us back from being our authentic selves. I hold all kinds of hopes, fears and opinions that are entirely authentic to me, but which would undoubtedly damage my leadership effectiveness if shared them all with my team. I have a coach for that!
There's also a huge piece around cultural awareness - my version of comfortable/known/authentic leadership in my culture might be entirely unacceptable in other cultures.
So, what can we do about this?
Hermina Ibarra presents three situations that offer a way to grapple with authenticity :
1 . Set goals for learning, not performance
Setting goals in a different way gives us permission to experiment with our identities without feeling like frauds, because we know we don't need to get it 100% right from the start. In this mindset we can start exploring what kind of leader we might become, whilst not seeking to protect our comfortable selves from threats.
2. Learn from diverse role models
Don't just assimilate one person's leadership style - borrow approaches from many diverse role models. As the playright Wilson Mizner says:
Copying one author is plagiarism, but copying many is research.
3. Don't stick to "your story"
Many of us have a strong narrative showcasing defining moments where we pick up important lessons. I blogged about some of mine here. Sometimes we allow the mental models from those narratives to guide us, without remembering that they can become outdated and occasionally need clearing-out. Try out new stories about yourself, and keep editing them.
Scores of leadership articles demand that we start our leadership journeys with a clear sense of our identity. In order to be the most honest, coherent, and value-based leader, I believe that your leadership identity can (and should) evolve, every time a significant change is made.