In the last few years, I’ve noticed more leaders sharing the perspective that to be great, they must lead authentically — that being our most true and genuine selves at work is the gold standard. The underlying belief is that if we can be ourselves without having to adapt to each situation or circumstance, we won’t compromise our character. Overall, being yourself is an undeniably GOOD thing; however, in trying this on and figuring out what it means to be authentic, there is more to it than your own authenticity. In fact, trying to lead authentically can fall short in certain situations.
When authenticity translates as not having to change based on circumstance, poor leadership can arise. In reality, there are always exceptions, situations, and circumstances that require you to adapt as a leader vs. doing what feels “natural” or “authentic” in the moment. Taken too far, the idea of authenticity can actually inhibit our ability to change, grow, and move beyond our comfort zone.
Bill George, professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and pioneer of authentic leadership, believes that leadership is about recognizing your strengths and limitations and building upon them, rather than trying to become a different person to fit a certain criteria. Authentic leadership includes acknowledging the needs of others and working toward addressing those needs to serve your organization through leadership. Authentic leaders spend a significant amount of time thinking about those needs and bringing solutions to life through their action and behavior.
Here’s how authenticity can go wrong: In an attempt to “be themselves,” leaders may focus too heavily on their own preferences and behaviors. This can lead to mistakes, missteps, or misfires. They may skip the part where they define an aspirational version of their leadership. Instead of growing toward who they want to be (in alignment with their goals, values, and strengths), these leaders could accept a default based on who they’ve been, what others think, and the circumstances they’re in. This can ultimately cause leaders to stall out and halt their own growth.
Second, a leader who is fixated on their own authenticity may forget the needs of others. Their desire to live and lead authentically could overshadow their team, leading to the justification of poor behavior, feelings of resentment and disrespect, and potentially toxic work environments. I’ve seen leaders lean so far into who they are that they are unaware of how they affect those around them. Their peers scramble to adapt, and in the process, lose their own autonomy and authenticity. Ultimately, effectiveness suffers across the team.
If you find yourself involved in an authenticity misfire, walk through the following steps:
I’m sure you’ve noticed a theme around asking for input. Creating a culture of feedback where you have an ongoing dialogue about how you lead supports both the growth of your team’s authenticity as well as your own. Authentic leaders need to seek honest feedback, not only from colleagues, but from friends, family members, and others who can provide insight. Be humble, grow, and learn to meet others where they are.