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, being able to cultivate leadership authenticity in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace has its share of challenges. Not many people seem to know how to do it effectively.

In my work as a coach, I’ve noticed there are three problems when leaders try to become more authentic. We all have an image of ourselves in our head. This can create an overly rigid view of oneself and 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. But which self? Depending on your role and the context, you can come across 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 can lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel, especially when you are as yet 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 behaviors that fail to suit the new situations you find yourself in.

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 can lose trust in their leaders and companies.

In 2012, while trust has finally begun to climb again 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% of employees trusted businesses to do the right thing. This is obviously not ideal if you are trying to create a well-motivated and energized workforce.

Employee morale is also at an all-time low. A 2013 Gallup poll found that, worldwide, only 13% of employees are fully engaged at work and are 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.