The Problem with Leadership Authenticity

While virtually every leader has a sense of what “authenticity” means, few know how to develop it as a leadership skill. To complicate matters, leadership authenticity in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace has its share of challenges.

In my work as a coach, I’ve noticed there are three problems when leaders try to become more authentic. A too-rigid view of oneself can be an obstacle to leading effectively. As Herminia Ibarra points out in her Harvard Business Review article, The Authenticity Paradox, (January 2015) the three common leadership pitfalls are:

  1. Being true to yourself. Which self? Depending on your role and the context, you show up differently. You grow and shift with experience and evolve into new roles. How can you be authentic to a future self that is uncertain and unformed?
  2. Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. You lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you’re unproven.
  3. Making values-based decisions. When you move into a bigger role, values shaped by past experiences can misguide you. In the face of new challenges, old decisions may produce authentic, but wrong, behaviors that fail to suit new situations.

In Search of Leaders’ True Selves

As we’ve learned from well-documented business failures and leadership catastrophes, when boards choose leaders for the wrong reasons—charisma, not character; style over substance; or image instead of integrity—people lose trust in their leaders and companies.

In 2012, when trust began to climb after several rocky years, only 18% of employees surveyed said they trusted business leaders to tell the truth, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. Fewer than 50% trusted businesses to do the right thing.

Employee morale is also at an all-time low. A 2013 Gallup poll found that only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work and psychologically committed to their jobs. When public confidence and employee morale are suffering, it makes sense that organizations are encouraging leaders to discover their “true selves.”

What problems do you see when leaders try to improve their image of authenticity? I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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