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The Authenticity Paradox

The Authenticity Paradox

The Authenticity Paradox

The article written by the Author, Professor Herminia Ibarra brings straight up the paradox of authenticity at the very beginning: Despite authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership, a simplistic understanding of what it means can hinder one’s growth and limits the impact.

The case example of Cynthia, who lost her credibility with her subordinates just for baring her soul and true self. Her strong belief in being transparent and collaborative leadership has been shaken by the waterloo. Cynthia’ experience just resonates with mine and I could actually myself reflected there. We might praise those who are loyal to authenticity, yet the author just bursts the bubble with a sharp needle: We tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable, because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors. We simply allow ourselves trapped in the comfort zones and often retreat to familiar behaviors and styles once our identities feel challenged by new settings. It takes courage to evolve our professional identities through learning, trial, and errors, and ultimately develop a personal leadership style that could resolve the paradox of feeling right to ourselves and fitting our organizations’ changing needs.

The author points out that, in leadership, authenticity shall be defined and viewed in a more nuanced manner as a too-rigid definition can make it a hindrance for effective leadership. The author illustrated the 3 common examples of authenticity and the problems they pose in the charts:

  • Being true to yourself. As leaders will evolve and transform ourselves with experience in new roles, it is hard to define which and how many selves they could be true to.
  • Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say or do. The leaders will lose the credibility and effectiveness for disclosing everything they think and feel.
  • Making value-based Values shaped by the past could lead people astray when they move into new roles and challenges.

The author ascribes leaders’ struggling with authenticity to the reasons below:

First, when leaders strive to improve their game, a clear and firm sense of self is a compass that navigates their choices and progress toward their goals yet will hold them back when they are looking to change their game radically.

Second, especially in global business, when working with those who don’t share the same cultural norms and have different expectation, it will pose a dilemma for the leaders between behave as expected and being authentic.

Third, having to carefully present one’s identities can clash with the private sense of self.By interviewing dozens of talented executives facing new expectations, the author has summarized the following 3 situations below where most people often grapple with authenticity:

Taking Charge in un unfamiliar role

 As personalities vary, people respond differently to the increased visibility and performance pressure in the first 90 days in a new leadership role. How leaders develop their personal styles could be categorized by two psychological profile: High self-monitors (Chameleons) and Low self-monitors(true-to-selfers), by Psychologist Mark Snyder of the University of Minnesota.

The author used the term ‘Chameleon’ to describe those are naturally capable and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling fake, care about managing their public image and mask their vulnerability with bluster. Yet people might perceive them as disingenuous or lacking a moral center.

By sharp contract, the author uses ‘True-to-selfers’, to describe those who tend to express their feeling and thinking utterly no matter what the situation demands. They remain comfortable in their familiar behaviors which prevent them from meeting new requirements and evolving their style as they gain insights and experience. Comparatively speaking, I consider myself as a True-to-selfer, at least in the first 5 years of my career. I have been too much influenced by the moral center and the value system I build up inside. I felt obliged to disclose all the information I know of to my boss, in all situations. Being utterly honest with people take the guilt off my shoulder and keep me within my comfort zone. Yet all those backfired and I lost credibility and respect from my boss and my members. As a worse result, I fell prey to the manipulation of Chameleon-type characters.

Selling one’s ideas (and oneself)

Leadership growth involves a shift from having good ideas to pitching them to diverse stakeholders, which could be deemed as artificial, political, and disgraceful for inexperienced leaders or especially true-to- selfers. Case example of Ann, a senior manager who could not communicate effectively in her role as she refused to play on people’s emotion, since it would be less authentic.

Professing negative feedback

Leaders will also encounter negative feedback when they start on larger roles or responsivities. Example of Jacob, who genuine thought he had built trust among his members, found it hard to digest the negative feedback. Like others, he tends to brush it away by convincing himself that the flaws in his natural style are part of its secret sauce for effectiveness and led him to success up to that point.

To resolve the above problems, the author suggests effective leaders release themselves from habitual patterns of thought and action, and develop a more playful mindset, keep an open mind to experiment with possible selves. Three ways are recommended to get started:

   Learn from diverse role models

 As author points out, learning and growth of leadership involve some form of imitation and taking the elements learned from diverse role models. Among those effective and successful leaders whom I have met and worked with, they also represent diverse styles in their way of management. Some of them are the authoritarian characters who possess absolute privilege over their subordinates with experience and know- hows; Some are simply putting on the charismatic public image and being confident and convinced of what they are doing. Some are good at manipulating the weakness of their subordinates to navigate the outcome to their favor. It is hard to find one perfect model that could have the whole package and it replies on ourselves to tune up the right compound to fit in with our authenticity.

 Work on getting better

Setting goals for learning helps us experiment with our identities without feeling impostors. We walk out from our protected comfortable old selves, and explore what kind of leaders we might become. I once felt baffled by the contradiction of being authentic yet maintaining a professional and charismatic leadership style. I have been inspired to take a small step forward and try on a new approach, I call it ‘Filtration Mechanism’. As much as I feel obliged to disclose my thinking and emotion, I would start by asking myself, how important is it to share that information, what might be the pros and cons? Is there a proper way to show the reality without showing my cards to others? One of the catchphrase I learned from my former boss also applies well here: ‘I won’t tell you everything, but everything I tell you is true’. I would consistently try on different approaches until I find the perfect balance.

Don’t stick to ‘your story’

Stories of life are not completely scripted, and they evolve over time with new experience, and stories of past experiences might become outdated and it is necessary to create new stories while embracing new challenges. Being authentic doesn’t necessarily means never changing. As strengthened by the author, the personal narratives shall add up past experiences and aspirations, as well as reflecting the demands we face and resonate with the audience we are trying to win over.

In conclusion, as what I have learnt from this article, being authentic with our true-selves is never wrong in principal, but we need to handle this precious trait in a more careful and skillful manner. To achieve growth in leadership roles, we need to walk out of our comfort zones, it might be scary and difficult with all the new challenges and responsibilities in the beginning. Leadership growth is achievable by relentless learning and trying. Everyone is entitled to stumble before he has found the right pace and rhythm. Once we have stretched our wings and soared up into sky, it is worth all the endeavors and pain.


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Submit your analysis of the following case from HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership Vol. 2 (2020):The Authenticity Paradox (Ibarra)

The Authenticity Paradox

The Authenticity Paradox

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