Do leaders really have to be authentic?

Being fake is clearly bad, but exactly how much of our personal lives should we bring to work?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 21 Feb 2017

‘Authentic’ used to be a word you’d use to describe antique furniture. Now, it’s the must-have adjective for any leader worth their salt. Simply put it means being yourself at work, being honest about who you are, what you’re doing and why.

The advantages of being authentic – or rather the disadvantages of not being authentic, were made painfully, eloquently clear in ex-BP boss John Browne’s book, the Glass Closet.

Foremost among them is this: wearing a mask all day is exhausting, not to mention miserable. It’s hard to expect anyone to have access to the full range of their creative and problem-solving skills, if they don’t have access to the full range of their personality and experiences. If you have to watch what you say all the time, second-guessing how other people will react, your thoughts will dry up.

‘Today, authentic leadership also means bringing your whole self to work,’ Browne concluded during a speech at MT’s Britain’s Most Admired Companies dinner in December. ‘For as long as someone is a leader, the personal is inseparable from the professional.’

The problem with authenticity

This sounds excellent and inspiring, but there is a danger of oversimplification here. What does being your authentic self at work mean in practice? What if, deep down, unrestrained, you’re a bit of a git? What if you’re in an authentically nasty mood because you burnt your toast and spilled your coffee? If being true to yourself means bringing everyone else down with you, it hardly seems worth the exchange.

The truth is more complex than just being yourself or not being yourself. Context comes into it, in a big way. It is an essential part of living in society (i.e. not as a hermit) that you moderate your urges, don’t always say what you think or do what you feel, based on whether it is appropriate in the given social context.

Downing 11 pints of Carlsberg before belching Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and passing out into your kebab might be your authentic Saturday night self, but it’s probably best not to replicate the experience in the office on a Monday morning.

Behaving differently at work and at home doesn’t mean one of them has to be inauthentic at all: personality and behaviour are dependent on situation. The really interesting question is how dependent should they be.

Freedom vs professionalism

Almost all of us would agree that you should never have to pretend to be someone you’re not at work, just to fit in. You shouldn’t have to hide your personal life away for fear of what people might think. Few, however, would deny that you need to be professional when you’re in the office, and sometimes that will involve filtering what you talk about.

The problem is, one person’s professionalism is another person’s straightjacket. Is office banter a good thing? Is your work culture stopping people from being who they are, or just stopping them from doing whatever they like? At what point does individual expression become inappropriate? What does professionalism mean in the 21st century? Discuss.

At the moment, we tend to see authenticity as meaning merely ‘being fake is bad’. While it’s tremendously sad and wrong that Browne and others had to hide themselves at work - and indeed as Browne points out, many still do – it’s also something that’s quite obviously wrong to most decent people, at least in principle.

That very obviousness is why CEOs are so keen to talk about it now, because it’s a safe thing to have an opinion on, but this risks turning ‘authenticity’ into pointless jargon. Instead, it could become part of a wider debate on how much our home and work lives – and indeed home and work selves - should overlap. To that, there is no easy answer.

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