Leadership: The authenticity paradox​

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Authentic leadership is a hot topic. Dr Vicki Webster reflects on how having a too rigid definition of authenticity can get in the way of effective leadership.

When teaching leadership development programs, participants often ask me, “How can I try new ways of leading and still be authentic? When I try to do things differently, it feels clunky and false.” 

Hermina Ibarra, Professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD, commented on the phenomenon of how feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth. She argued that a too rigid definition of authenticity gets in the way of effective leadership. Authentic leadership implies we have one ‘true self’, our ‘essence’, a representation of what we stand for. Yet we have many identities and roles in life as we go through transitions in our personal growth journey. Authentic leadership requires leaders to show their real selves to their followers. But it can be difficult to be true to a future self that is still forming.  

We know as leaders we learn most when we are pushed out of our comfort zone into new experiences. We learn from our mistakes. So what is the impact when we get things wrong or when we overdo our strengths? Should we show our true selves by being authentically good and authentically bad while we learn the best way to lead? Or should we focus our energy on maintaining the perception we are a good leader?  

I have noticed that as managers move to higher level positions, the values and choices they made in the past may not equip them well for their new role. For example, a focus on risk management and operational control may not serve a leader moving to a more senior strategic role that requires innovative thinking and challenging the status quo. To learn as a leader, we need to try out different leadership styles and behaviours and experiment with other ‘possible selves’. How do we take this growth approach when it may feel and be perceived as fake? Taking an adaptive approach to authenticity can cause us to feel like imposters, because we are engaging in new practices that do not come naturally.  

Despite this paradox, Ibarra suggests leaders should play with their leadership identities rather than sticking to their story of who they are as a leader. Instead, they should learn from diverse role models, continually reinvent themselves and change their ‘story’ accordingly. The challenge with sharing our new selves is that first impressions form quickly and matter a lot. So when we undertake a new role or a new challenge we need to quickly become clear on our changed leadership identity and show our new ‘constructed self’ if we do not want to be pigeon holed with our old identity.  

Leadership development requires more than reflection and introspection to gain self-awareness. It requires taking on new projects and interacting with a range of role models to embrace external perspectives that challenge our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving. Despite our discomfort, we must be willing to try on new identities and ways of leading – to be open to possibilities. 

While this may feel like we are being inconsistent from one day to the next, it is not being false. To be a great leader we need to experiment to work out what the right leadership for us is in every situation and challenge that we face.

As leaders, we do not just need a clear sense of who we are (our essential selves) – we must also be willing to change our leadership identity (our constructed selves) each time we move on to bigger and better things.

Dr Vicki Webster facilitates leadership development programs with Women & Leadership Australia.

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