“Authenticity” is the latest buzzword in business, often considered the golden ticket to effective leadership.
It’s hard to deny its appeal. Who wouldn’t want to bring their whole, true self to work, lead by radical transparency, say what they mean, and mean what they say?
Don’t be fooled by the marketing, warns Herminia Ibarra, a professor at business school INSEAD in Paris and author of new book “Act Like A Leader, Think Like A Leader.” There is such a thing as being too honest, and the line can be perilously thin.
In her recent cover story for the Harvard Business Review, Ibarra argues that a simplistic understanding of authentic leadership can backfire fast. Here are some of the risks of being too “authentic” at work:
1. Your growth could stagnate. So you want to be true to yourself. Which self? What does that really mean? “The notion of adhering to one ‘true self’ flies in the face of much research on how people evolve with experience, discovering facets of themselves they would never have unearthed through introspection alone,” Ibarra writes. If you stay in your comfort zone, you might get stuck there.
2. You may lose your credibility. At times, vulnerability can be empowering, but some things are better shared in private among family and friends. When a manager admits fear or inadequacy on the job, subordinates question their ability to lead. Ibarra cites the example of a newly promoted general manager at a healthcare company who believed in transparent, collaborative leadership. But when she said to new employees, “I want to do this job, but it’s scary, and I need your help,” she immediately undermined her authority.
3. You might make bad decisions. Ibarra explains that, by adhering to a too-rigid definition of authentic leadership, some managers may make values-based choices rather than decisions rooted in data. “When we move into a bigger role, values that were shaped by past experiences can lead us astray,” she writes. “For instance, ‘tight control over operating details’ might produce authentic but wrong-headed behaviour in the face of new challenges.”
4. You may not get the buy-in you need. Many professionals confuse being authentic with doing what feels most comfortable, but when your usual behaviour clashes with what’s expected or necessary to succeed, you set yourself up for failure. Much like you’d have to adapt to cultural norms when working in another country, as you climb the ladder and influence more people, you may need to change your style in order to sell your ideas and motivate your team — even if it feels fake at first.
5. You might start rationalizing ineffectiveness. For some workers, “authenticity” may just be a cover for poor results. “That’s just my style” is an easy defence to negative feedback, and that kind of mindset could hold you back from real growth.
To avoid these landmines, Ibarra recommends evolving toward an “adaptively authentic” way of leading. “Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself — which, let’s face it, sounds like drudgery,” she says. “When we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to possibilities. It’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for the new challenges and circumstances we face.”
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