#HBR: The Authenticity Paradox in Leadership

Should you be transparent about your feelings and challenges? Should you be cautious, and strategic in your leadership persona? Such a paradox, in a world that claims to love authentic leadership! Authenticity is a double-edged sword, building trust and breaking it down, depending on how we perform our true selves.

According to Hermania Ibarra, in the Harvard Business Review, “The word “authentic” traditionally referred to any work of art that is an original, not a copy. When used to describe leadership, of course, it has other meanings—and they can be problematic. For example, 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. And being utterly transparent—disclosing every single thought and feeling—is both unrealistic and risky.” She offers a flowchart of authentic behavior to help us choose the best authenticity, not the most rigid.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and personal identity this week, because I attended a networking event in which two contrasting examples of this very problem stood out profoundly. This example demonstrated how authenticity without a strategic filter can be disastrous in a business setting.

We were talking about making connections in trade shows, retreats and business panels. One member responded to friendly networking suggestions for how to budget and exploit trade shows and group events by insisting, repeatedly and very authentically, that she had no money and could only do free events. Another spoke of his success budgeting a percentage of his profits, authentically and positively modeling his focus in the face of challenges. Both told the truth. The first lost my trust by sharing her authentic fear, and therefore being unable to connect in relationship.

In business, politics, and in our communities, we need to learn to be authentic and flexible, what I call “shapeshifter” authenticity.

Ibarra puts it this way: “Fortunately, there are ways of increasing outsight and evolving toward an “adaptively authentic” way of leading, but they require a playful frame of mind. Think of leadership development as trying on possible selves rather than working on yourself—which, let’s face it, sounds like drudgery. 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.”

Imagine how that fearful, business-hungry networker would have fared if she’d been able to be authentically open and playful instead of authentically closed down! We need to cultivate a flexible authenticity, not an authenticity based on a rigid story about ourselves or our identity.

Then we can be present in the moment, connect with what is, and build a foundation for success in the future.

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