Shaping Your Authenticity
Sunday, January 15, 2023
There are many genres of leadership theories. One of those is authentic leadership. Regardless of how leadership psychology researchers define it, the most common view of authentic leadership is leading while being true to oneself and acting according to one’s feelings, emotions, and values. Unfortunately, most of us make career decisions, exhibit behaviors based on this perception, and shortchange ourselves. Let me give a couple of examples.
- You believe in empowering others, and you run all your meetings and interactions democratically to let everyone speak, solicit opinions, and then decide based on consensus. It feels good to do it that way. But then you struggle when consensus does not emerge quickly or dissent and strong voices take over the forum. Because telling people what to do and directing them is counter to your belief of empowering others, you remain uncomfortable even when the situation needs direction for the right outcome.
- You avoid taking certain roles because you consider them political. For example, you may decide not to choose the managerial career ladder because you believe managers have to deal with politics and make choices counter to their beliefs. Or you may not show up and influence certain forums or people because you think something about them is political or against your core beliefs.
There are also many people that chuckle when referring to authenticity. They believe that the world is unfair and that you must play politics to be in and win the game. I once worked with a leader who believed others were out there to get him. For such people, authentic leadership is taking the high road and not accepting reality.
Furthermore, authenticity gets in the way of getting things done for most. But it does not need to be that way. You can be authentic and still deal with reality to evolve to be a better leader. But for that to happen, you must amend how you think of authenticity.
I recently came across an excellent article by Herminia Ibarra of the London Business School, who wrote the following in her The Authenticity Paradox:
Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.
That’s right. One of the flaws in our thinking is our belief that our authenticity is innate in us, as though we’re born with certain beliefs and values. We then limit ourselves to certain behaviors and possibilities and remain in a comfort zone that does not challenge our beliefs and values. We filter out possibilities because of the potential conflict with our authenticity.
There is a better way, which I learned a few months ago. As part of my coursework at Penn State, I had a chance to examine my beliefs and probe why I believe in them. This exercise was based on Bill George and his team’s 2007 article Discovering Your Authentic Leadership and several other papers on the psychology of leadership. Bill George is best known for his books like Authentic Leadership and Discover Your True North. I never read his works until I was forced to read his 2007 article as part of my coursework.
The key lesson from my exercise was that our self-stories strongly influence our beliefs and values. Instead of treating our authenticity as innate, consider that the stories we tell ourselves shape our authenticity.
I can give an example. People who know me or work with me closely know that I don’t pick battles quickly. That’s because certain situations I saw made me dislike interpersonal conflict and feuds. Because I disliked conflict, I rarely employed conflict as a tool of engagement. I instead chose the belief that conflict is not good and mostly avoided it. Consequently, my conflict muscle remained weak. In certain situations, conflict may be the most effective tool, for example, telling someone their behavior is not cool and they must stop it. Of course, that person would likely disagree with me, and I must be prepared to deal with it.
I would encourage you to do a weekend exercise: write down three or four of your most important beliefs or values. Then ask yourself why you picked those, and write down those stories. Then put yourself in situations that challenge some of those beliefs and values, and let those experiences influence you. For example, if you don’t believe in telling people what to do, put yourself in a situation where you have to do that to be effective. If you feel certain people are political, try to find a situation where you need to interact with them to get something done. See what happens. Let yourself change.
In other words, don’t think authenticity is something you’re born with. It’s not fixed. It’s something that you shape with experience. But you need to broaden your experiences to shape your authenticity. Break the mold.