Recently, at Logan airport here in Boston, I picked up a copy of the Harvard Business Review. This has become a common habit of mine before a flight, as I welcome the uninterrupted reading time and chance to feel a little smarter than when I boarded. What really caught my eye this time was the cover story, “The Authenticity Paradox.”

I had recently published a post on the importance of authenticity to millennials (Introducing the Millennial CMO) in which I encouraged brands, especially B2B, to get rid of the BS, and re-invigorate authenticity into their marketing.

But authenticity is not a universally positive trait. This excellent article by author Herminia Ibarra gave me interesting new insight into the limits of authenticity as it applies to our careers and leadership styles.

What is Authenticity in Business?

For me, I equate authenticity with honesty. It’s traditionally used to describe a work of art that is an original, not a copy. However, in the article Ibarra expounds the idea that authenticity is used in leadership as an identity trait that actually may cause some leaders to get “stuck.”

“When we view authenticity as an unwavering sense of self, we struggle to take on new challenges and bigger roles. The reality is that people learn – and change – who they are through experience.”

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Leaders may latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But, and this is something I feel every day as a new entrepreneur, few jobs allow for us to stay in our comfort zones forever.

“As we strive to improve our game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that helps us navigate choices and progress toward our goals. But when we’re looking to change our game, a too-rigid self concept becomes an anchor that keeps us from sailing forth.”

Adaptive Authenticity

Ibarra suggests that by trying out different leadership styles and behaviors, we grow more than we would through introspection alone. She calls this approach “adaptive authenticity.”

Those who can develop their personal styles are described as chameleons. They are able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling fake, or like an imposter.

Those with a tendency to express what they really think and feel, even when it runs counter to situation demands, are dubbed “true-to-selfers” and may stick too long with what’s comfortable instead of evolving as they gain insight and experience.

Ex: Know Your Audience

The way I see it, adaptive authenticity is in part applying the basics of marketing to your career and day-to-day leadership style. Know your audience, and adapt to suit their needs.

For example, the article describes a senior manager who was very successful – doubled revenue, redesigned core processes in her unit.

But her boss didn’t consider her to be an inspirational leader, and the chairman of the board at her parent company often became impatient at her detail oriented presentation style.

She knew she wasn’t communicating effectively in her role as a board member. Her feedback was to “step up and do the vision thing” but to her, it felt like manipulation. She refused to, quote “play on people’s emotions,” and create emotional messages to inspire/influence others, instead choosing to rely on facts, figures, and spreadsheets.

As a result, she seemed to pursue contradicting goals by pushing hard on the facts instead of pulling the board chairman in as a valued ally.

This is about seeing our jobs as a collective win – not just a selfish pursuit. It’s about selling ourselves effectively and understanding the dynamics around us.

Yum... Humble Pie

Negative feedback is key to improvement. However, the article points out that many leaders often convince themselves that dysfunctional aspects of their “natural” style are the inevitable price of being effective.

For example, Margaret Thatcher.

“Those who worked with her knew she could be merciless if someone failed to prepare as thoroughly as she did. She was capable of humiliating a staff member in public, she was a notoriously bad listener, and she believed that compromise was cowardice. As she became known to the world as the “Iron Lady,” Thatcher grew more and more convinced of the rightness of her ideas and the necessity of her coercive methods. She could beat anyone into submission with the power of her rhetoric and conviction, and she only got better at it. Eventually, though, it was her undoing—she was ousted by her own cabinet.”

How to be Adaptively Authentic

Ibarra suggests thinking of leadership development as trying on possible selves. It’s OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. That’s not being a fake; it’s how we experiment to figure out what’s right for new challenges and circumstances we face.

“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 adaptive approach to authenticity can make us feel like imposters, but it’s outside our comfort zones that we learn the most about leading effectively.”

Be yourself. But to succeed as a leader, we must be willing to evolve what that means over time.

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