Leadership requires many traits including integrity, courage, humility and the ability to communicate well. It also requires authenticity.
But being authentic can be tricky as author Herminia Ibarra points out in a recent article titled “The Authenticity Paradox,” in the Harvard Business Review.
As a leader it may be difficult to remain true to who you are when leading an organization that is continually changing and evolving. Or when moving to a new company where your authentic self may not be fully appreciated.
Does your ability to demonstrate vulnerability make you appear weak and ineffectual instead of humble and approachable? Ibarra writes of maintaining the correct mix of distance and closeness in an unfamiliar situation.
Stanford psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld says it is about “managing the tension between your authority and approachability.” She says being authoritative means using your knowledge, experience and expertise over the team’s, while maintaining a measure of distance. On the other hand, being approachable means you emphasize your relationships with people by seeking their input and perspective, while you lead with empathy and warmth. It’s a balance.
Finding an organization whose values are aligned with yours is a good place to begin. However, unless you are one of the founders of the organization, you may not align 100% or remain fully aligned as you advance your career.
In the same way organizations are (or should be) constantly evolving to meet market conditions and accommodating new employees, so too should you evolve as a leader. While keeping up with new knowledge and skills is important, you also need to recognize and accept that your true self should continually grow and adapt given the situation.
Instead of being static in your identity, your true self should continually evolve with your environment in order to be most effective. Not as a chameleon, but as a curious, open-minded, lifelong learner who is willing to listen to other perspectives, try out new behaviors, and evolve as you age.
It is often said that we see others as photographs and we see ourselves as movies. This is because we have a tendency to put people in boxes in order to best understand them. But this only keeps us from really knowing each other. Even though we know and accept that we as individuals are continually changing, we fail to appreciate that so too is everyone else.
This ability to stay true to yourself while evolving means not being too rigid in how you see yourself. For example, in networking situations if you are still describing yourself the way you did ten years ago, you may want to rethink things.
Try out new stories to describe yourself, stop repeating who you were or even how others might describe you, and begin showing who you are now. Get comfortable with the idea that who were yesterday, is not who you are today, nor who you will become tomorrow.
Learn from other leaders and make small adjustments regularly to allow your authentic self to continually evolve and emerge. This doesn’t mean stop holding true to your values, but allow for refinement as you reassess and move throughout your career.
One of the reasons I love jazz is that it seems to perfectly encapsulate a combination of structure and improvisation, a musical form that enables freedom of expression of one’s true authentic self. And a great jazz musician never plays the same composition exactly the same every time.
As a leader it’s essential to continually listen and learn from others. Introspection is important, but it should not be at the exclusion of interacting with others and, ideally, it should come after this interaction.
Look outward, reflect inward, and continually refine how your authentic self contributes to or detracts from your overall effectiveness as a leader. Don’t expect your authentic self to remain still, and let it continually evolve and emerge.