Being authentic while leading others is difficult work. Part of the challenge can be attributed to popular misunderstandings about the actual meaning of “authenticity.” Below I present and debunk three common myths about authenticity in leadership.
Myth #1: Authenticity is about speaking your mind.
No, anybody can do this. While authenticity is indeed about having the courage and ability to speak your mind in times of trial, it is most definitely not always about speaking your mind. Expressing your opinions without considering others and the situation at hand can be downright foolish. Tactless, unmonitored speech can undermine your authority over your direct reports, it can destroy your relationships with your peers, and it can threaten your superiors. Yes, while you lead, you should strive to express yourself openly and honestly, but remember that certain reactive approaches to communication can be hurtful to others and undermine your team’s goals. Instead, authenticity is about being able to speak the truth to others in a way that they can hear you, even when the situation is difficult or wrought with conflict. This requires courage, patience, clear purpose, and a skillful understanding of politics and process. If you’re in the habit of speaking your mind in a way that is interpreted as disrespectful, look out, because you’re undercutting your own ability to influence. Do you really want to inhibit your ability to make progress as a leader because you value speaking your mind over making a positive impact?
Myth #2: Authenticity is simply about being true to yourself and true to your own values.
Yes, assuming that you have done the work required to understand your values, being true to them is definitely part of authenticity. But in the context of leadership, authenticity requires much more than this! Why? Because when you’re leading others, it’s not only about YOU. Authenticity involves being true to who you are while simultaneously recognizing, interpreting, and respectfully considering the values of the people around you. People in organizations often hold clashing values, so the challenge of leadership is to manage such differences in a productive, uniting manner. The next time you sense that your true self may be being compromised at work, try this: 1) Recognize the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing, and think about the triggers that cause them to surface. 2) Reflect on your point of view and what is most meaningful to you, and consider how that may be different from the views of others and what is most meaningful to them. 3) Have the courage to initiate and manage conversations that could help bridge gaps or lead to a greater understanding between individuals. 4) Hold your ground when it is most important to do so, but step down when it’s not worth the time and energy. Remember that you can’t win every battle, but don’t give up the most important parts of yourself too often, either.
Myth #3: Inauthenticity is undesirable and should be avoided at all costs.
In the long run, it’s true that being authentic is preferable to being inauthentic, but inauthenticity isn’t necessarily bad. Actually, that twinge of inauthenticity you feel in a given moment (and/or the discomfort of not knowing the answer that is most true to you) can be very useful because it represents an opportunity for learning and personal development. Perhaps you often conceal your opinion or lie to people who out-rank you, and instead you say things that will please them. Perhaps you stay in the office late because you feel guilty about leaving early, when deep down you value picking your kids up from school at that time. Or perhaps you are leading a new team that has different values to the last team you led, causing you to notice areas where your values don’t naturally line up with those of your new team members. Instead of ignoring those moments when you feel anxiously inauthentic or helpless in not knowing what is true to you, afterwards take a moment to reflect on what was driving your reactions or discomfort. Perhaps you’re afraid of rejection, or you lack the courage to stand up for what will generate the greatest happiness for you, or maybe you’re in transition and need to be patient with yourself. Take a walk and think about the internal challenges that you need to work through the most. Start a journal. Talk to trusted others. Embrace those moments of personal inauthenticity as valuable fuel for your personal development fire.
Remember that practicing authenticity in a leadership role requires engaging in a highly conscious way of leading. So speak your truth, but do it lovingly. Be true to your values, but consider others’ values along the way. And use those moments of inauthenticity and uncertainty as precious opportunities for continuous development.
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