Managing your authentic self

Leadership demands the expression of an authentic self. If you try to lead like Jack Welch, Richard Branson or Michael Dell, say, you will fail. Employees will not follow a chief executive who invests little of himself in his leadership behaviour.

by Harvard Business Review, December 2005
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

However, authenticity should not be confused with naturalness. Leaders often assume that authenticity is an innate quality - that a person is either authentic or not. In fact, authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you.

Authenticity is largely defined by what other people see in you. As such, to a great extent it can be controlled by you. If authenticity were purely an innate quality, there would be little that you could do to manage it and, therefore, little that you could do to make yourself more effective as a leader.

Great leaders understand that their reputation for being genuine needs to be painstakingly earned and carefully managed. There is no single way to establish and manage your authenticity. However, there are several steps that you can take to help others see you as a genuine leader.

These can roughly be divided into three groups. The first involves getting to know yourself and your origins better, through such means as familiarising yourself with the people, places and events that shaped you and getting honest feedback from family and close friends.

The second is getting to know others better by finding out about others' backgrounds and interests, removing barriers between yourself and other people, caring deeply about the work your people do, and giving people feedback that acknowledges and validates their origins.

Finally, connecting to the organisational context better requires knowing how to create the right first impressions, sharpening your social antennae, honouring deeply held values and social mores, and developing your resilience.

This is not to say that authenticity can be an act. It is not the product of pure manipulation and must reflect aspects of the leader's inner self. Great leaders seem to know which personality traits they should reveal to whom and when.

They are like chameleons, capable of adapting to the demands of the situation they face and the people they lead without losing their identities in the process. They retain their distinctiveness as individuals, yet know how to win acceptance in strong corporate and social cultures and how to use elements of those cultures as a basis for radical change.

Source: Managing authenticity: the paradox of great leadership
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
Harvard Business Review, December 2005

Review by Roger Trapp

Harvard Business Review, December 2005 recommends

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