Authenticity in leadership re-examined

by Mar 14, 2016

Authenticity in leadership – does fake it ’til you make it work?

Herminia Ibarra, economist and leadership author, commented on authenticity in leadership  in The Authenticity Paradox 

“Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact.”

Many of us often struggle with feeling inauthentic during periods of transition, because a promotion, or new job or any professional change can trigger “imposter syndrome” and feelings of inadequacy.  Read: How to let go and move on: Making the best of life’s transitions

authenticity in leadership

Authenticity in Leadership

Ibarra says that people view their true self as something fixed and unchanging, and stick to their comfort zone because it feels easy for them to act authentically when they aren’t being challenged. Read:  Taking a Look at the Comfort Zone In fact, she says, you grow and evolve with each change in your external circumstances, and learning always involves behavior which feels unnatural at first.

Author Brene Brown has summarised it neatly as,

“Authenticity is a series of choices we make every day”

True authenticity in leadership is constantly shifting.

 Authenticity in Leadership

What is authenticity, even? At its most basic, it means being honest and true to yourself.  Commentators usually widen the definition to cover a variety of characteristics – such as being self-aware, empathetic, willing to listen to others, and driven by values.  Authenticity has become a vague catch-all term for soft skills and self-development.


Read: 3 Ways to Enhance Leadership Qualities with Empathy


Feeling authentic can be difficult during transition.  Psychologist Mark Snyder splits people into two categories depending on their own level of emotional control, and each will seem very different when they act in a way which feels true to themselves. Low self-monitors are more in touch with their own feelings: they stick doggedly to what they believe, and refuse to change based on what others want.  High self-monitors (Ibarra calls them “chameleons”) find it easy to read social cues and adjust their behavior to match what’s expected of them.  They can come across as disingenuous and fake,  persuasion, adaptability, flexibility is what comes naturally to them. Some might call it manipulation.

Companies Expectation

The clash comes when your own authentic self, your true personality, doesn’t match corporate expectations.  This commonly happens in international companies, in which people from a variety of different backgrounds are expected to fit into a narrow company culture.  For example, open disagreement is common in French workplaces, whereas in Japan the aim is to get group consensus before making a decision.  Neither idea is wrong, but they can’t coexist; if a Japanese and a French person found themselves on the same team, the only way to reach compromise would be for one or both of them to act in a way which felt unnatural.  (Erin Meyer has done some fascinating research on business culture in different countries)

 Style of Leadership

Ibarra points out that people in high-powered positions tend to be criticized on the “style, not substance” of their leadership, and this can make it feel harder to be open and transparent at work.

Read: 3 Es for Insights on Leadership Styles

This is especially true for women in powerful positions; they are already more likely to be criticised for subjective character traits based on unconscious bias than objective performance. The assertive vs abrasive comments are rife in the corporate workplace for women but not men.

Leadership styles tends to be associated with a stereotypically type of male behaviour. (the “Think Manager, Think Male” stereotype), which means women are often expected to tone down their authentic voice in order to fit with the prevailing company culture.  If you’re a woman who’s naturally blunt, or introverted, or standoffish, or shy, then showing that authentic aspect of your personality will do you no favours at work.

Read: To Grow as a Leader, Know Your Leadership Qualities.

Self-awareness is your foundation for continuous development and increased effectiveness as a leader. Why? You can’t maximize or change what you don’t see.

Get in touch with  3Plus International  and you can choose from a variety of assessments that will help:

  • Increase your self-awareness
  • Identify your leadership development goals
  • Create your leadership
  • development plan

Alice Bell Contributor
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."

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