As a consumer, you’re bombarded with somewhere in the region of 300 adverts a day. But chances are, the brands you spend your hard-earned cash with are few and far between – probably those that consistently deliver on promises, have believable values and are warm, and provide friendly customer service which lives up to the image projected by those behind the scenes. In other words, they’re authentic.
Since Bill George’s seminal 2003 work Authentic Leadership, authenticity has come to matter just as much in the workplace as it has on the supermarket shelves. Being an authentic leader, whether you’re responsible for an entire organisation or a weekly report, is essential to career success, the book argues. In with self-awareness, leading with your heart and being true to yourself, out with presenting a corporate image, channelling the leaders you most admire or straying too far from your roots.
But why exactly does authenticity matter so much? What are the workplace benefits? And what are the costs to those who fail to present themselves at their most authentic?
1. To be something you’re not is actually harmful to your own wellbeing
Psychologists looking to qualify the benefits of authentic leadership asked participants in a study to write about times they felt either authentic or inauthentic. They divided the group into two, depending on which they’d chosen to write about, and then examined their psychological states. What they found is that those who’d behaved in a way which was at odds with their thoughts, desires and needs, harboured feelings of fakeness, and that this in turn tainted their “moral self-concept”, something which impacted for the worse their emotional wellbeing. “In short, being an imposter to oneself leads to moral and psychological distress.”
See for yourself: think about a time when you’ve been comfortable and confident enough to be yourself at work, to say what you thought, to present the real you and your legitimate ideas. Now think about a time when the environment, another person, or even your own fears saw you take up a mask, say thing you didn’t mean or do things in a way that were at odds with your values. What were the impacts of both scenarios in terms of how you felt?
2. Remaining true to who you are means you’re more likely to learn and grow
A study of diverse business leaders found that one of the things that characterises an authentic leader is that they understand their own life stories – who they are and where they came from. They understand how their own experiences have shaped their lives allowing them to be more open to learning and growing. They see themselves as “works in progress”, are more likely to try new things, push the boundaries of their comfort zones and examine themselves when things don’t go well, taking on board the feedback of others – all crucial qualities in a manager or leader.
A note of caution: knowing who you are and taking care to consistently present this image through your words and behaviour, does not mean that you cannot change. Just as you are a different person with close family and distant relatives, work colleagues and best friends, authentic leaders know that there are multiple facets to their personalities and that who they are is influenced by many factors and may change regularly. The eager new upstart persona you were known for in your early career might not enable you to get ahead as you head towards your thirties. Is it inauthentic to project a new personal brand in order to get ahead? Absolutely not. It simply means you are developing as a person and as an asset to your business. Remember: as well as urging us “To thine own self be true”, Shakespeare also wrote, “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts.”
3. Others are more likely to buy into your vision, go on the journey with you, and find you inspirational
You can worship Hilary Clinton from afar, admire your boss’s easy presenting style or envy the military efficiency with which a colleague runs her team meeting. But if you try to be a carbon copy of them, you’re unlikely to be perceived as authentic. Those around you want to know that you’re investing a little of yourself in your behaviours, and when they see this they’ll respond accordingly.
This does not, however, mean that you have to wear your heart on your sleeve, that every aspect of your being must be shared with others. Keeping private your nerves about an impending deadline isn’t inauthentic – it’s just good business sense. So where do you draw the line? Instead of thinking of authentic leadership as something that lays you bare, think of it in terms of practising what you preach, behaving in a way that is in line with what you’ve said you believe in. If you’ve encouraged a sluggish team to show more passion and motivation, ensure you project these traits yourself.
More ways to tap into your own authenticity at work:
Collect a whole portfolio of role models. Ensure that you’ve an entire roster of individuals you admire and whose behaviour you’d like to learn from. The playwright Wilson Mizner said: “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.” So, read widely; scour the everywomanNetwork for new role models; join networks where you’ll come into contact with a wider range of people of different backgrounds and leadership styles.
Get comfortable with where you’ve come from. But keep one eye on where you’re going. Your past needn’t dictate your future, but having a good sense of your own autobiography – why you’ve made the choices you’ve made, what lay behind your successes and failures, what motivated you along the way – helps steer your path towards the future you want. Remain true to your roots, while continually pushing yourself beyond your comfort zones so you stretch and grow in many directions.
Take on board what others have to say. Listening to what others have to say, in all areas, can unlock new thinking and deeper knowledge. It also helps to remove barriers between yourself and others.