Want to Be a Great Leader? Science Says Stop Trying to Be So ‘Authentic’

Or at the very least, stop trying so hard to "be yourself."

Courtesy of Rei Imagine/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Rei Imagine/Shutterstock

Conventional wisdom says the best way to be a great leader is to be an “authentic” 
leader. Doing what you say. Practicing what you preach.

Being yourself.

As Adam Grant writes:

“We are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love, and career. Authenticity means erasing the gap between what you firmly believe inside and what you reveal to the outside world…

We want to live authentic lives, marry authentic partners, work for an authentic boss, vote for an authentic president. In university commencement speeches, ‘be true to yourself’ is one of the most common themes (behind “expand your horizons,” and just ahead of “never give up”).

Makes sense. People quickly sniff out the slightest whiff of difference between word (and mission and vision statement) and action.

But as Adam also points out, “No one wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.”

Science agrees: People who are high self-monitors — who regularly scan the people and environment around them and adjust their behavior accordingly — tend to advance in their careers more rapidly and achieve higher status among their peers than low self-monitors. (Low self-monitors are more focused on what goes on inside rather than around them.)

Which could make high self-monitors seem fake. Less authentic. Less real. Less “themselves.”

But because they constantly scan their environment, high self-monitors tend to be much more in tune with the needs of others. They more readily notice social cues that signal approval and disapproval, excitement and disappointment, satisfaction and frustration… and research shows are more likely to learn from and embrace the traits and habits of the people around them, which over time made them more effective leaders.

And over time, those traits and habits became part of themselves. So while adopting another person’s leadership style wasn’t “being themselves,” over time those traits became authentic.

As Professor Herminia Ibarra says:

“Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But few jobs allow us to do that for long.

That’s doubly true when we advance in our careers or when demands or expectations change.”

At times, you do need to be yourself, like when you’re asked to do something that runs counter to your core values or ethics.

Otherwise, your goal is to be a better version of yourself: To learn from great role models. To adopt better tools and strategies. To adapt to changing conditions.

And most important, to adapt your leadership style to the needs of your employees, both as a group and as individuals — instead of some inner need to be totally “true” to yourself.

As Herminia writes:

“The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are — doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become.

Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes — in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact — often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.”

The best way to be an authentic leader? Genuinely strive to serve your employees, not yourself.

Because that’s the kind of authenticity everyone appreciates. 

Originally published on Inc.

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