The Case for Authenticity – And What Authenticity Really Means


The Case for Authenticity – And What Authenticity Really Means

My first big career break was landing a marketing position at a prestigious international investment bank in Toronto, Canada. It was every bit as glamorous and exciting as I could have imagined, and every bit as stifling and strict when it came to policies and rules. But because it was one of my first real jobs out of college, I thought that was how all work environments were and I decided I better learn to conform to the strict norms. 

Over the next few years, I developed an image in my mind of what a professional and a leader was supposed to be like. For the most part, having strong managers and colleagues to observe and watch was an incredibly valuable experience and I learned a lot. But as I matured and moved on in my career to other positions, I found that I was merely impersonating my previous bosses, mimicking their style and behavior. 

Rather than working out what it meant for me to be my own professional self and a leader in my own right, I would second guess myself and consider how others would have reacted in a given situation. This left me unsure of my decisions, feeling fake, and lacking confidence.

What Makes a Great Leader?

Just over a decade ago, the results of the largest study conducted on leadership development were published by Bill George, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and a former medical technology business executive, in his book, True North. What he found from the 3,000 pages of transcripts that came out of the 125 interviews with executives of corporations, nonprofit institutions, and foundations was not what he expected. 

A Good Leader Can’t be Boiled Down to a Persona

The compilation of interviews did not lead to the identification of any specific characteristics, or key traits, or even any individual leadership styles that led to the executives’ success. George and his assistants were unable to develop a definitive profile of an ideal leader that others could try to emulate in order to be a world-class leader.

Fortunately, however, their significant efforts, time, and money were not in vain and a new transformative understanding of how great leaders develop emerged that today helps schools and businesses cultivate their next generation of leaders.

Leadership Starts with Understanding Yourself

Over the course of the study, when asked what led to their success, instead of listing the attributes they held or contributing qualities they possessed, the interviewed executives outlined their life experiences to explain how they got where they were. They described the passions that gave them purpose in their lives. 

It was such passions that enabled them to practice their values consistently, helping them to establish long-term meaningful relationships that propelled their careers forward, and provided them with the self-discipline to get results. Most importantly, these executives knew who they were and understood themselves well enough to discover how and where they could make a difference.

The Authentic Leader

In 2015, the Harvard Business Review declared in an article that “Authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.” Their timing couldn’t have been more spot on. Over the past few years, the American public has become increasingly disillusioned, skeptical and discouraged when it comes to both their business and political leaders. Whatever your leanings, the election of Trump, a political outsider, is an indicator that people were craving something different from what they had been getting – the polished politician that most can’t relate with, trust, or believe to be genuine.

But sometimes the concept of authenticity is misunderstood. Webster’s dictionary defines authenticity as “not false or imitation; real or actual; true to one’s own personality, spirit or character.” However, nowhere does it say, authenticity means, “lose your filter and say whatever pops into you head without regard to the feelings of others.” 

As a leader, you have a responsibility beyond yourself. So authentic leaders who simply focus on “being themselves,” are forgetting a key element of their title – the “leader” portion, and this is where there is a distinction within authentic leaders – those who are “high self-monitors” and those who are “low self-monitors.” Low self-monitors will say whatever comes to mind and high self-monitors adapt to the demands of a situation, watching carefully what they say for its impact on others. Low self-monitors are, in all actuality, the opposite of authentic leaders. 

While a leader who speaks off the cuff, says something crass, or behaves in socially undesirable ways may be perceived as “keep’n it real,” in reality it’s a sign of immaturity, inexperience and an inability to respond in a sophisticated and strategic manner. A low self-monitor leader is less likely to be able to do what’s best for an organization than a high self-monitoring leader who can scan the environment for social cues and adjust accordingly, regardless of whether they are being true to themselves.

Developing Authentically

Finding my authentic professional self has been a journey and it’s not over. And to be honest, it’s a journey I don’t expect to ever “be over.” It’s a process that has taken deliberate efforts to develop self-awareness of my strengths and weaknesses, understand my purpose and motivations, build resilience, actively seek out feedback, and learn different communication styles and techniques that work best in different situations. 

It may seem counterintuitive that I had to find my authentic professional self and leadership style and it wasn’t just “there.” That doesn’t mean I am contrived or fake. It means who I am and want to be seen as has been thought out, considered, reflected on and most importantly, sincere.

Article contributed by:
Kathleen Laney
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