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Can you be too much of an authentic leader

Can you be too much of an authentic leader?


I recently ran a Women’s Leadership Development programme, and we talked about the power of being your authentic self to be a better leader.  When we can be ourselves we are less stressed and worried about things, we make better decisions, listen better and generally understand people and situations.  In this same programme, we also discussed whether you can be too much of an authentic leader, and how does that fit comfortably with professionalism?  Here are my suggestions for solving that puzzle, and finding your happy medium to be both.


What do we mean by Authenticity?

My suggestion is that Authenticity is the notion of ‘true self’ – I know who I am and have a consistent way of operating. Authentic Leaders understand their biggest leadership attributes, accurately reflect aspects of their inner selves, and exercise control over the expression of their authentic selves.


People want to be led by someone “real”. Take a look at some recent political leaders across the world.  Although their behaviours may be (potentially) divisive, what their supporters see in those leaders is a real, authentic person.  Authentic leaders develop trust through honest relationships and promote openness through a consistent way of operating; creating a psychologically safe environment through consistent behaviour and responses that other people can start to predict or anticipate.  


The Authenticity and Professionalism Dilemma

Going back to my recent leadership programme, what became apparent was how people perceived authenticity and professionalism, with too much authenticity leading to unprofessional behaviour.  It could be seen as a single dimension like this:


High = unprofessional ——————————————————————————————- Low = professional

Authentic Behaviour


We sometimes confuse Authenticity and Professionalism and believe they are two ends of the same dimension, and the challenge I heard was “How can I be authentic and still be professional, there’s no way I can be myself and be taken seriously in work?”


This is a misconception.  Professionalism and Authenticity are two different traits.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines professionalism as “the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person”.  That’s not the same as being authentic which the same dictionary defines as “ true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”.

View authenticity and professionalism, not as a single dimension but as two paradoxical traits that when used together give the person a greater range of behaviours to be more effective.  Those people who are both authentic and professional at the same time can develop the most respect from other people as they are believable (true to themselves) and credible (exhibiting professionalism) at the same time.


Knowing when to dial up, or dial down your authentic self

Increasingly these days, we need to be agile and adaptable. In my own work, I need to find ways to relate to and influence different people.  But I can’t be someone I’m not, and still be successful.  Great leaders consider personality traits to reveal to whom and when; dialling up certain traits and dialling down others, whilst still being authentic.  A bit like a chameleon, capable of adapting to the demands of the situations they’re in, without losing their identities in the process.  

This means considering these three elements – 


  • yourself, your values, beliefs and natural tendencies
  • The needs of other people, stakeholders, employees or shareholders
  • The culture and context of the organisation you’re in


Herminia Ibarra calls this being “adaptively authentic”,  – I call it releasing different sides of your personality to different audiences.  This is important because as the pace of change affects careers and increases the volume and complexity of organisational change, what led to an individual’s success in the past may not lead to their success in the future.  


Authenticity and Personal Growth

As careers change and people move through leadership roles, they need to move out of their comfort zones and the authentic self has to amend and change.  This doesn’t mean we are being inauthentic – we are simply learning and growing.  


Holding a rigid self-image could mean stagnating, staying put and struggling to change.  Leading to behaviours that include expressing what you really think and feel, even if it runs counter to situational demands.  Psychologist Mark Snyder, of the University of Minnesota, called these “true-to-selfers”.  The danger of thinking of authenticity like this is you could stick with comfortable behaviour, which limits your effectiveness in new requirements and could prevent you from growing and gaining insight and experience.


This can be hard to square with authenticity and that’s when you can be too much of an authentic leader.

To avoid this, make sure to include learning from diverse role models, and feel comfortable to experiment. This is not imitating or faking it, but learning from others and moulding these to become your own.


The original question was can you be too much of an authentic leader?  The challenge of great leadership is managing your authenticity, paradoxical though it can sound!  Back to my Women In Leadership programme – we concluded that the key lies in finding the right balance. Authenticity is important, but it needs to be tempered with self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and an understanding of the organisational context. It’s important to consider the potential impact of your actions and strike a balance between being authentic and maintaining the necessary professionalism and effectiveness as a leader.


Did you enjoy this blog?  You might also be interested in my other ideas and suggestions.  Take a look at my other blogs on my website.  You’ll find thought leadership on topics like leadership, talent development, personal development and the future of work.  

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