We hear a great deal about the need to be authentic as a leader today.
But what exactly does that look like? For some women, particularly Boomers and Generation X, growing up as leaders they became convinced that to crack the glass ceiling, they had to behave like the male leaders around them…not very authentic!
Today, things are changing and there is growing evidence and appreciation that women’s natural emotional intelligence attributes make them more engaging and better leaders. I would suggest this still needs to be more widely understood and valued as part of bringing authenticity to leadership.
Authenticity is experienced by others, not a label you can hang on yourself. This means that the words you say align with what you do. That the values you espouse are evident in the decisions you make and the way you treat others. So, practicing what you preach is one part of being authentic, but not the whole story. Embodying your beliefs every moment of every day is crucial. It has to be seen to be real, not a mask or lip service. That does not mean you always have to be perfect or rigid in your behaviour, just the opposite. I have a concept I call the authentic chameleon. We all are multifaceted; it is finding the part of us that fits the needs of those around us that is important. After all, a chameleon is always a chameleon, even when it takes on the colour of its background. Similarly, an authentic leader is able to flex to meet the needs of those around them, without compromising their essential values, beliefs and standards. It is this essential ability to find common ground and enable those around to feel heard, valued and understood that marks out the authentic chameleon leader.
If a leader is playing a role that isn’t a true expression of their authentic self, followers will sooner or later feel like they’ve been tricked. (HBR 2020)
As Jean Tomlin former HR director at Marks & Spencer and one of the most influential black businesswomen in Britain says “Before I go into a situation, I try to understand what it is [people] will be thinking. I prepare what I am going to say and who I am going to be in that context,” She goes on, “I want to be me, but I am channeling parts of me to context. What you get is a segment of me. It is not a fabrication or a facade—just the bits that are relevant for that situation.”
I remember when I headed the Sales and Marketing Team at Disney, I reported to the MD who was a rugby playing, hard drinking, man’s man. He had previously managed the sales team I inherited and he had plenty of advice for me on how to lead them. It contained nuggets like, “Well, you have to stay up late with them in the bar at conferences to get to know them” or, “You have to go play golf with other leaders, to establish yourself”. He could not seem to accept that I, as a non-drinking, non-golfing, female might find a way to lead this team that was authentic to me, rather than an inauthentic facsimile of his style.
I realised that he had been quite indulgent of lapses of process in the sales team, such as accurate and timely submission of expenses and last-minute order recording which sometimes appeared to me to have been done just to hit a target, only to be amended after the month’s accounts were completed. So, my message was that they had to clean up their act. Not an easy one to put out, especially in the shadow of the MD. So, since I had 7 men in the Sales Team and I was the only female and physically petite, I hit on the idea of creating a cartoon of a small Snow White with 7 large dwarves and using the humour in the parallel of Snow White getting the Dwarves to improve their personal hygiene with my getting the sales team cleaning up their admin and reporting!
With warnings of potential objections ringing in my ears from the MD, I went ahead with my approach. To his chagrin, and my sense of what was right, when conveyed in this way it came across totally authentic for me, whilst diametrically different from what the team were used to. The message went down very well, without any arguments or resistance. The team responded to my authentic message that engaged, showed understanding of their ingrained habits and used gentle humour to get the message across.
So, the key lessons here are to:
Be very self-aware, know who you are, and what the complexities and facets of yourself are that you can bring to changing contexts.
Bring your values into full consciousness and seek to identify what your purpose is.
Allow yourself to be comfortable in your own skin. This is not about thinking the world has to adapt to you. It is about recognising your value while also ensuring you recognise the needs and value of those around you. Be different enough to be you, yet familiar enough to breed trust.
Don’t be afraid of a little self-disclosure, it makes you seem more human and relatable. Use your personal history and narrative to connect with others.
Keep your feet on the ground even when others seem to want to put you on a pedestal.
Admit error or lack of knowledge and trust the wisdom and knowledge of those around you.