Who you are, has become more important since our economies deliver numerous services, and we are knowledge workers in varying projects while our societies ride the waves of global change. It is not just what you do, and how you do it, but WHO you are that makes the difference in all this volatility. Being precedes doing.
Meanwhile, many people were shocked by the autocratic leadership that caused economic havoc and we long for leaders that we can trust: authentic leaders. Moreover, we want to be authentic ourselves, whatever our role is.
We long for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We want to develop ourselves both personally and professionally. We long to belong to a team of trusted coworkers, contribute to a great cause and decide how we do our jobs today – because we are professionals who can be trusted.
Even though we long for this magic mix of individual freedom and collaboration – many organizations are not ready to host authentic individuals.
Scarcity rules the pyramid
The old-fashioned organization with its hierarchy, its procedures, and its control-paradigm enhances inauthentic behavior. The CEO cannot be an authentic human being – or can s/he?
The pyramid seems to imply that those at the top with the best view from their corner office know best (fake it, if you don’t). Those with the heaviest responsibilities can never doubt anything (hide your feelings and doubts, to look strong). Those on top control those below and rightfully so – because they climbed the ladder, and they feel entitled to the social status they enjoy (act like a boss). The same goes for all the other bosses, and supervisors – with their perks and the parts of the hierarchical pie that they have claimed.
Perks, parts, and positions are limited. That feeling of scarcity enhances a zero-sum game. When I win, you lose (something). Games, office politics or defensive play may serve me better in securing my stakes than showing myself completely and being “whole” at work.
Authentic up- and downsides
Even so, the main challenge in life is to become fully human. Being fully human includes doubts and indecision, learning, making mistakes, insecurities, not being the best at everything, and liking some people better than others. It includes shame, fear, anger, grief, guilt, discouragement, but also hope, inspiration, love and kindness alike. It is being rational and emotional. It is being inspired and being bored. Optimistic and disappointed. You get the picture…
Not all of these authentic moods, thoughts and emotions are equally functional in all situations. Some things are appropriate to share at work, and some are not. It depends on you and those around you: the shared culture of the team or organization.
Yet, authenticity has a great appeal. Moreover, rightfully so. It presupposes honesty, trustworthiness, and reliability. Trust is priceless. It is essential to know that your boss and colleagues have your back. It makes for great bonding to be able to share doubts or think out loud.
If leaders allow themselves to be learners, they are authentic. Leaders as learners make everyone smarter. If no one gets laughed at, anything is possible. Even if authenticity is awkward sometimes: at least you get to know the other better. That builds trust. And trust builds energy, ideas, abundance, possibilities…
Distrust closes people down. If you don’t feel safe, you won’t share information and energy. You’ll withhold things – and the others will feel that. They start to doubt you and become cautious themselves – until some disengage while some others turn to political games or bluff to get their way or defend their perks. Inauthenticity becomes the norm. So the workplace becomes a stage where drama can be played out.
Courage and abundance
Yes. It takes courage to be authentic. It may feel vulnerable, silly, or inappropriate. Your ego might want to stop you for fear of losing face. What if you admit that you find it hard to make that decision? What if you try something that doesn’t work out? What if you practice kindness while the current culture emphasizes a tough dog-eat-dog world? The pressure to adjust is high, both from the group and your ego. So, dare you? If you are brave, magic may happen.
I believe in authenticity because it breeds trust. Authenticity and trust lead to abundance, eventually. An abundant flow of information and energy to begin with – that can lead to abundant performance and outcomes.
Almost 20 years ago, I quit my job because I wanted to be myself, and I needed more freedom and challenges. I did not want to spend my precious energy walking on eggshells and navigating office politics and hierarchical roadblocks. I started my own business instead – attracting clients that align with who I am. It has been a wild ride, but I count my blessings. It is so empowering to be able to be myself.
Food for thought
Magazine Issue 18 explores authenticity (accessible for paying members) from various angles. Julian Bolster, an international coach, advocates decentralized leadership: to make everyone the CEO of something.
If all leaders were authentic, and whole and healed, they would not resist decentralized leadership. However, if leaders have not done their personal homework, sharing leadership and being authentic can be scary.
In that case, it is easier to hold on to the power play and to keep a safe distance from employees. What if anyone would debate your position? What if authentic feelings portrayed you as an inadequate leader? Such leaders conclude: “Better to stay strong at all times. Better to stay in charge. My position in the pyramid is scarce. There’s only one leader.” (Really? Let’s discuss that some other time!)
Graham Williams thoroughly explores what authenticity is. General definition: Being true to self. And: thinking, feeling and acting congruently. Also: staying true to your values.
Sounds nice, but like always, it’s easier said than done.
Some challenges and questions:Who is that self, with all its varying emotions, moods, and thoughts?
Should and can you be authentic all the time, in any role…? Is that effective?
How can you be authentic – but vary your style as circumstances change?
What do you think? Dare you be authentic? And who are you, as an authentic person at work?
Marcella Bremer co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com. She’s an author and culture & change consultant.
You can reply to her last questions in the comments on the original article, or share your thoughts below.