Don't Take Authenticity at Face value

Experts say be honest, and also open to self-improvement

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Feb 20, 2015
Given low public opinion of corporate CEOs, business executives have been encouraged for years now to lead authentically—staying true to their values, following their passions, and maintaining integrity and transparency as managers. Some business leaders seem to struggle with the concept, however, and may have taken the advice a bit too literally, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article.

The author suggests there are times when managers would be well-advised to keep their genuine selves in check and aspire to new versions of themselves.

“Authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. But a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder your growth and limit your impact,” Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior and leadership professor at graduate business school INSEAD, writes in “The Authenticity Paradox” in the Review’s January issue.

Managers aiming for authenticity should be open to change and growth, Ibarra and other leadership experts say. This may even mean that leaders need to “fake it till you learn it,” according to Ibarra, who is also the author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015) and Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career (Harvard Business Review Press, 2003).

In an interview with SHRM Online, Ibarra cited her own experience in learning to teach Harvard Master of Business Administration students, when she had been more accustomed to research.

“I never thought of myself as a great teacher,” unlike the entertainers that her fellow faculty members could be, she said. Her peers touched students emotionally and captured their imaginations, while Ibarra considered herself too dry, academic and boring, she explained.

A colleague told her she had to figure out how to get people’s attention—to take up space, get in students’ faces and let them know she owned the room. Ibarra thought those things had nothing to do with being a teacher, “but I did them because nothing I knew how to do was working.”

Ibarra found out what worked for her, and changed the way she taught, by doing “a bunch of stuff that came totally unnaturally to me,” she said.

“Was I being authentic? In a very strict sense of the word I wasn’t being authentic,” she said, explaining that this was because she was concealing her insecurities and doubts. “I was trying something out and eventually I became that”—that is, she became her own version of what her colleague had advised.

This isn’t a rejection of authenticity, Ibarra told SHRM Online. “It’s just a much more realistic definition of what authenticity is. To me, authenticity is an outcome. It’s something you become.”

In the Review article, Ibarra offered examples of leaders who seemed to undermine themselves at work by staying too true to what they felt were their real selves.

One woman was promoted to a general manager position that greatly expanded the number of businesses, and employees, she oversaw. Her transparent leadership style backfired when she “bared her soul” to her new employees, letting them know she was scared by her new role and needed their help, Ibarra wrote.

Elsewhere, an auto parts executive faced a dilemma when his company was acquired by a foreign business with a different decision-making culture that called on colleagues to aggressively advance their ideas and achievements, rather than follow a traditional chain of command with a more humble approach. The executive “felt he had to choose between being a failure and being a fake,” she explained.

In another case, a production manager, criticized by employees for inadequate emotional intelligence and angry outbursts, thought his toughness had contributed to his success, when really he had succeeded despite his behavior, Ibarra wrote.

Ibarra suggests an “adaptively authentic” way of leading in which managers step out of their comfort zones and allow themselves to evolve into different kind of leaders. In other words, one’s “authentic self” can change.

“Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself—which, let’s face it, sounds like drudgery,” Ibarra wrote in the Review article. Being open to new possibilities isn’t being fake, she contended; it’s a way “to figure out what’s right” for new circumstances. This requires a playful attitude and learning from others’ leadership methods, pointed out Ibarra.

Ibarra also blogged on the Harvard Business Review’s website recently that speeches from top North American leaders have become more personal but also more scripted, following a common template of self-disclosure, humility and triumph over adversity. She calls it ironic that authenticity “has become one more requirement to which a leader must conform.”

Leadership and engagement speaker and author Kevin Kruse has a different take.

“She’s coming out pretty hard against authentic leadership,” he told SHRM Online. “I don’t view there being a problem. I don’t see the need to defend authentic leadership or to clarify it,” Kruse said, citing definitions from Harvard Business School professor and author Bill George, who wrote the seminal book Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (Jossey-Bass, 2003). “Nobody ever said authentic leadership meant you should share your fears,” or that a manager “should just stay their current, flawed self,” Kruse said. Sharing your true self “doesn’t necessarily mean sharing your irrational emotions or deepest psyche;” it means being honest and transparent with facts. Kruse’s books include the New York Times best-seller We: How to Increase Performance and Profits through Full Engagement (Wiley, 2011), which he co-wrote with Rudy Karsan.

Bill George and colleagues, writing in the Review in 2007, noted that self-awareness and a willingness to change were key authentic leadership qualities.

And on his blog, George wrote last month that America needs a new breed of leaders who are authentic and focused on serving clients, rather than charismatic and seeking personal money, fame and power; who put personal interests behind those of society and their institutions; and who have the integrity to be honest and acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings.

“Authentic leadership is not about being perfect. It is having the courage to admit when you’re wrong and to get on with solving problems, rather than covering them up,” George wrote. Leaders also should be able to adapt to new circumstances, he said, changing themselves and their organizations rather than going into denial when something goes wrong, as well as have the resilience to bounce back from major losses.

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former staff reporter for the Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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