Why do people applaud the idea “just be yourself?” In reality, we need to consistently strive to be better then ourselves. Does this make us inauthentic or simply high achievers?
The push towards authentic leadership has been trending for some time. In fact, last year the Harvard Business Review wrote, “authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.” To some degree this may be true, but is authenticity the magic bullet up-and-coming leaders should aspire towards? Not according to three leading scholars.
In his book Leadership BS, Stanford’s Jeff Pfeffer stated “the last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is authentic.” Herminia Ibarra, INSEAD Professor and winner of the 2013 Thinkers50 Leadership Award says, “we have to find a way to fake it till we become it.” And Wharton’s Adam Grant wrote in the New York Times, “’Be yourself’ is actually terrible advice… Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”
There are two psychological profiles of authentic leaders—“high self-monitors” and “low self-monitors.” High self-monitors (i.e. chameleons) adapt to the demands of a situation, while low self-monitors (i.e. keep’n it real) say whatever comes to mind. If your gut reaction is that low self-monitors are more authentic, consider that authentic is defined as the choice to let your true self be seen. Therefore, it may be “authentic” to express every thought, but it’s also a sign of immaturity, inexperience, and/or a general lack of intellectual sophistication.
Low self-monitoring can be effective. Research shows people are more likely to assume a leader’s behaviors is a true reflection of their beliefs, attitudes, and personality when they violate social norms. Basically, by speaking off the cuff, occasionally saying something crass, and behaving in socially undesirable ways we may be perceived as being more authentic. However an effective leader cannot respond based upon whatever emotion he or she happens to be feeling in the moment; they need to do what’s best for the organization regardless of whether they are being true to themselves.
In contrast to the “keep’n it real” leaders, high self-monitors are more guarded but that does not mean they are inauthentic. These individuals are interested in their public image, scan their environment for social cues, and are able to adjust accordingly. In addition, they monitor their words and behaviors not to be phony, but to ensure they are being sensitive to the impact their actions have on others.
Those coveting authentic leadership often get stuck in their “authentic” persona. They latch onto what’s comfortable and get locked into a rigid sense of self. This then precludes them from meeting new challenges rather than evolving their style as they gain insight and experience.
True authenticity, the kind practiced by high self-monitors, involves constant self-development where we move beyond our comfort zones. High self-monitors embrace their flaws and continuously seek to enhance their capabilities. They seek greater self-aware and try new ways to expand their relationship building skills. To build these skills, here are a few helpful tips.
Fake it ‘til you make it. To ‘fake it’ is not a lapse in authenticity, nor is it a lie or being superficial. ‘Faking it’ is a state of mind. It suggests that if we live as though our goals are within reach, that we are already the person we want to be, then the reality will come to fruition.
Find your zen. Self-awareness is a vital part of leadership. To get in touch with the inner you, engage in reflection. Such introspective practices as meditation, exercise, mindfulness, yoga, and long walks without the distractions of technology or to-do lists are key to getting to know yourself better.
Seeking honest feedback. To gain a greater understanding of how you come across, gather real-time feedback from colleagues and subordinates. What they report may not always be pleasant, but you can’t make improvements by hearing only your strengths.
Understand your leadership purpose. You cannot align your team around a common purpose if you don’t know what it is. Strategy and performance metrics matter, but determining your “why” provides the inner motivation that both you and your team need to excel.
Change your narrative. Many of us have defining moments that paint a picture of who we are. These stories often become outdated as we grow and learn, yet we hold onto them as an emotional safety blanket. Know your story but also embrace how it changes over time.
Stop trying to be so authentic. Instead of maintaining your low self-monitoring rigidity, focus your efforts on continual self-examination, learning, and growth. Take note of lessons learned and seek and integrate feedback from others. “Being one’s self” can be achieved in a productive, ambitious way… just don’t try so hard to be authentic.