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The Risks of Authenticity: How to MakeAuthentic Leadership Work For Everyone

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.

Authenticity in Leadership 

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. 

How Authenticity Can Go Wrong 

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. 

How to Put Authenticity to Work

If you find yourself involved in an authenticity misfire, walk through the following steps: 

  1. Set aside some time for reflection. Create a clear understanding of your aspirational self. Who do you want to be? What are your values? Why is your aspirational self important to you? How do you want others to experience you?
  2. Understand where you are today. There are two parts to this. Start by getting an understanding of your Super Powers. What are the things that make you unique and special? This is what you want to leverage to bring your aspirational self to life. Next, look at where there is a gap between your aspirational self and how you are showing up today. It’s OK to be honest and vulnerable; it takes courage, and it’s the only way to make true change. For this step, you may want to elicit structured feedback in the form of feedback sessions with your peers. Both your self-perception and reflections from others are critical to gain the full picture. 
  3. Work toward understanding the needs of others. If you don’t know their needs, ASK. Even if you believe you understand the needs of others, you should still ask. You may not understand everything you could about what is possible. 
  4. Pick an area (or two) where you want to learn and grow. If you need extra support, find a coach or a mentor, or even discuss your goals and aspirations with a trusted advisor or peer. 

Create a Culture of Feedback

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.