Leadership in corporate America evolves through trends and transformations that are reflective of American culture. In recent years, the practice of authenticity has been encouraged and rewarded in leadership by companies. How does authenticity create value for the organization? What makes it so integral to leadership? Moreover, on a broad scale authenticity encourages people in companies to be who they are privately and publicly. Authentic workers are more apt to bring their whole selves to the job, to align with the goals of the company, and to be more supportive of the company’s mission. If these benefits are seen with authenticity in the workforce, what kind of expectation of authenticity is realistic for leadership?
If authenticity is being “true to self”, or “original” in thought or action, it becomes a tricky notion for leadership. Everyone knows that first impressions count, especially the first 90 days of tenure for a new executive. The way an executive takes charge in an unfamiliar role can speak volumes about their authenticity potential. There are two types of leaders when it comes to internalizing authenticity. There are the chameleons or the “high self-monitors” that adapt to any situation with ease and mask their true feelings. They are vulnerability averse and can come off as “fake” at times by never shedding their chameleon image. On the other end, the “low self-monitors” speak and act the way they feel regardless of the demands of the situation. The low self-monitors find it more challenging to blend into the workforce or conform to corporate cultural expectations. The key to managing a new situation like the first 90 days is to balance authority with approachable behavior for leaders, which can be a challenge especially for the “low self-monitors”.
Both types of leaders should strive for vulnerability as part of the leadership maxim. When Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston presented a compelling TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability”, she emphasized that leadership is all about relationships. “Re-humanizing work and education requires courageous leadership,” says Brown. “It requires leaders who are willing to take risks, embrace vulnerabilities and show up as imperfect, real people.”
Imperfect, real people are unique in their imperfectness. However, leadership authenticity for the greater good is a learned discipline. The understanding that nothing is “original” can encourage leaders to learn from various role models. The concept of learning, especially at the beginning is about imitation. Therefore, it benefits a leader to learn not from just one style of leadership, but to pick and choose aspects of leadership behavior which suit them the best. This comes naturally to the chameleons or “high self-monitors” who skillfully mirror leadership styles. Eventually, the imitation melds with their natural attributes and forms into authentic leadership. The true-to-selfers do not adapt as quickly as chameleons often stalling to find suitable role models which they feel are original.
Once past the initial stages of leadership, there are some tips which can help both “high self-monitors” and “low self-monitors” align their authenticity. This is crucial to avoid the impostor syndrome, the destructive feeling that the public leadership persona is not aligned with the private self. The first important task is to cultivate self-awareness. A leader who knows himself is in tune with his ethics and character, there is no gap between what he believes in and how he conducts business day-to-day. What values does the leader have? What motivates him? Is it to have an open company culture or an innovative edge? The values and purpose the leader brings from his life will guide the vision of the company and it’s important to have a clear understanding of that direction.
Another pillar of authenticity is the power of the leader to connect in every situation. Whether, at a large company meeting or face to face in the hallway, authentic leaders should foster relationships at every opportunities. This highlights Dr. Brown’s point about vulnerability that the leader needs to have the trust of the employees. Great leadership is not necessarily made by uttering grandiose statements in front of large crowds, but can sometimes be handwritten notes of acknowledgement or small, intimate conversations with employees. The leader needs to show himself to the people and that requires a degree of courage.
It is a good idea for leaders to constantly ask for feedback as a gauge of their authenticity. Though, being authentic is not running a popularity contest in the organization. There are still some people that may not like what you do or your leadership style. However, authenticity research has shown that leaders who focus on the success of the organization, make ethical choices, and do what’s right for the employees tend to gain the respect of the organization in the process. Leaders can track their progress with known weaknesses, such as talking too fast and see if conscious effort will improve these shortcomings over time. There needs to be a few honest people who will support the leader in their quest for authenticity. People that will make sure the leader is in line with their values and ethics, and is moving the organization in the right direction long-term.
Authenticity emerged as a trend in leadership in corporate America recently and it has staying power. It emerged as a result of declining trust in management in corporate America as well as a powerful push for employee engagement as a success metric of corporate culture. Ironically, being themselves may not be as easy for leaders as it is implied. Executives in an unfamiliar role may not know how to come across as authentic. The two types of leaders, the “high self-monitors” and the “low self-monitors” have different tactics for fostering authenticity. It becomes a learning process, first through role modeling and then through the tapping of vulnerability inside each of us. It is only after a hefty dose of self-awareness, a skill for connecting with people, and improving upon consistent feedback that leaders arrive at their authentic leadership style. The pursuit of authenticity is long and arduous, however the results can be phenomenal.