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Leadership and authenticity: Being the 'real you' at work

Pepi Sappal

Leadership and authenticity: Being the 'real you' at work

Leaders who are seen as authentic inspire the most loyalty, but what does being ‘authentic’ really mean? Pepi Sappal explores this complex and often misunderstood area of leadership, and looks at how to balance personality with professionalism

Are you guilty of wearing a mask at work to hide the real you?

Many of us adopt a more professional persona in the workplace, behaving differently to how we would at home. But increasingly, staff are demanding more authentic leaders. They don’t want their managers to be aloof or display empty charisma; they want to be led by people who are genuine and not scared to reveal their more sensitive human side.

“How authentic you can be very much depends on the organisation and people you work with,” says Sally Duff, an independent consultant specialising in personal development. “So the extent to which you reveal yourself needs to be carefully considered as you can potentially damage your reputation and credibility. For example, in organisations where strong leadership is highly valued and expected, revealing your weaknesses can be career suicide.”

I am what I am 

Taking the need to be authentic too far can prove dangerous for some leaders.

Where they often go wrong is “making the mistake of bringing their ‘raw authenticity’ to work,” says Penny Tamkin, associate director specialising in management and leadership at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES). “Letting raw emotions come through depending on how they feel at any given time, such as ranting and raging one minute, happy or grumpy the next, can be dangerous. 

Authentic leaders inspire people to follow them – it’s an emotional rather than rational response that unlocks discretionary effort where employees will go that extra mile for you.

“A recent leadership study by the IES revealed that authentic leaders always think about how they come across and the impact they have on others, and are therefore careful about how they present themselves to their workforce, exposing a version of their ‘real self’ that gets the best out of staff,” she continues.

While it’s important not to bury weaknesses, Tamkin warns that you have to be careful how and when you reveal them.

“Authentic leaders are careful about the emotions they put on display and keep emotions that can elicit a negative response from staff – such as anger – under wraps,” she says. “They recognise they are on show and therefore control their behaviour in a way that’s authentic to their best self.”

There are many definitions within management and business literature of authentic leadership but, as a rule, authentic leaders tend to be genuine, transparent and trustworthy, display a strong moral code and can be counted on to keep their word.

But it’s often difficult for leaders to be completely authentic. “Sometimes an organisation’s culture or processes don’t create the right conditions for authentic behaviour,” says Roger Delves, director of the masters in management course at Ashridge Business School. 

Delves points to the recent Barclays rate-fixing scandal as an example. Before its CEO Bob Diamond resigned, he claimed that the conduct of the fixers was not in line with “the values or culture of Barclays”. Yet it is leaders that set the culture – the way things are done – by their explicit instruction, tolerance and the kinds of behaviour they reward, say Delves.

Challenging times

He blames loosened legislative restraints and attractive reward incentives for this mismatch between the ideal and reality.

“Organisations create tantalising transactional reward systems that aren’t necessarily in line with their values,” he says. “And it’s not always easy to be authentic, especially in the face of temptation, where team leaders are incentivised with huge bonuses that they are then driven to achieve.

“But the trouble with creating this type of environment is that it can encourage inappropriate behaviours that often aren’t in line with company or personal values. It’s still important to value results, but a sustainable way of achieving them is needed, and authentic leadership is one way of doing that. But the problem is we don’t teach it or reward it, which has led to a decline in personal values.”

Duff believes authentic leadership is an ideal that is complex and hard to achieve.

“You can’t always be honest and open,” she says. “For example, as a leader presiding over a takeover or merger, you have no choice but to be cagey until you are legally allowed to reveal the facts. So you have to find ways to adapt and communicate in an authentic and honest way. And that’s no easy feat, especially in those kinds of situations.”

Robin Ryde, leadership expert and author of the forthcoming book Never Mind the Bosses, recalls the time when he was the youngest chief executive of the UK National School of Government: “In that role, I often had to put on a brave face and instil confidence in people even when things weren’t going well. I had to put on a show, without revealing what I was really feeling inside.” 

Managers and leaders often struggle to be authentic in such contradictory circumstances.

But Ryde offers a solution: “In times of hardship and crisis, good leaders need to reveal their human side to get staff to go that extra mile for them. You can do this by revealing that you too are vulnerable, and this will instil confidence in you from your staff. For example, you can say something along the lines of, ‘I’m just as worried as you are, but I feel confident that if we pull together, we can achieve x,y or z’.” 

Duff says leaders that allow staff to see their human side “are more likely to win hearts and souls, and get them on side, than someone who is aloof and doesn’t let their guard down. But it’s important to be consistent, or your actions will be viewed with suspicion.”

So how can managers and those vying for leadership roles become more authentic?

“You basically need to be aware of how you come across to others,” says Tamkin. “Organisations usually collate the information from 360-degree feedback questionnaires, staff surveys and so on. This information can be used to develop yourself in your quest to become more authentic. Sometimes only small adjustments in behaviour might be needed, but in other cases mentoring or coaching may be required to achieve a deeper shift in behaviour.” 

Chris Welford, managing director of Sixth Sense Consulting, agrees: “If you want to be an authentic leader, be prepared to work on yourself, especially in becoming aware of how you react to situations. Executives shouldn’t go into a senior management job without having a sense of the kind of person they are. You should work on yourself, ideally with a coach, to find out who you are and how you can become a better person and leader.

“Authentic leaders are aware of what drives and motivates them, are reasonably comfortable with their feelings, and acknowledge that they too have flaws and are prepared to work on them.” 

So how do you develop such self-awareness?

In his book True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, former Medronic CEO Bill George suggests looking back over your life to identify key moments that helped to define who you are today. “These could be from early childhood, school, family, work, sports, military or religious experience, or people in your past life that had a significant impact on you,” he says. 

“They could be high or low points in your life. These key events and people taught you lessons that played a part in shaping your values, principles and identity. When you examine those critical incidents from your past, you begin to piece together patterns of lessons learnt that help define what’s important to you today. In other words, you become self-aware.” 

Once you have developed a strong sense of self-awareness, it’s easier to present a refined, edited version of the ‘best’ you and develop a leadership style of management that will allow you to be true to yourself.

“However, when leaders need to maximise their effectiveness, they may need to vary their style,” says Paolo Moscuzza, partner at business consultancy Organisation Effectiveness Cambridge. “And it’s vital to vary it in a way that’s still natural to you because if you vary your style excessively, the cracks will start to show. 

“Take managers who are simply not interested in other people but need to show more interest – they can be more effective by simply asking their team members more questions. But if they take on a persona of excessive interest, this facade will crack quickly because it is not natural to them, and people will see through that. 

“It’s about modifying the real you and creating behaviour that is sustainable by still being genuine to yourself and your experiences. For example, you might share the same kind of stories over lunch with colleagues that you tell your children at the end of the day. Of course, the delivery will be different to how you explain it to your kids, but if the story is genuine and relevant to you and your experiences, then you are still being authentic.”

Developing yourself

Authentic leadership is complex and unlikely to be achieved through training programmes alone.

It’s an ongoing process by which leaders gain self-awareness and establish open, transparent, genuine and trusting relationships. Coaching and mentoring can help, but becoming an authentic leader involves transformation at a much deeper level. It’s about figuring out who you are and who you want to be as a leader, which requires individuals to work on themselves, and that can be a life-long journey.

But it’s certainly worth it, says Welford: “Authentic leaders inspire people to follow them – it’s an emotional rather than rational response that unlocks discretionary effort where employees will go that extra mile for you.”

The biggest plus point is that it will create high levels of trust, says Ryde. “That way you’re more likely to have an honest dialogue with your employees and get a correct impression of what’s really going on under your nose.” 


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