“Engaging authentically with people is the first task of genuine leadership.”
Authenticity is not an innate quality—that is, you are not born with it. Second, being an authentic leader is not something you can say about yourself; it must be attributed to you.1 Some believe that to be authentic, you have to present yourself the same way in every situation. At first thought, this notion seems reasonable, but when you really think about it—not so much. The way you interact with your boss is not the same way you need to interact with your family, peers, team members, or clients. It is not only okay to present yourself differently in various situations but crucial to being perceived as authentic.
There is nothing more restrictive than feeling that you cannot be you. In Chapter 2, “Making the Transition into Management,” we reported that the most positive thing about Millennial managers is that Millennial employees can relate to them. Don’t give up one of the best things you have going for you as a young manager because you think you have to present yourself the same way to your age cohort as you would to your manager.
In the same sense, don’t try to downplay the opportunities you have to connect with other managers and executives in your organization for the sake of saving face with your peers. Don’t apologize for the level of conversation to which you have access. Don’t allow your enthusiasm and energy for either context to be muted.
Herminia Ibarra argues that having too rigid a definition of authenticity can get in the way of effective leadership. She succinctly captures the challenge of presenting our authentic self: “Many of us work with people who don’t share our cultural norms and have different expectations for how we should behave. It can often seem as if we have to choose between what is expected—and therefore effective—and what feels authentic.”2 Negotiating the space flanked by what is expected and what feels authentic is the Millennial manager’s world.
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones wrote a great piece titled “Managing Authenticity.” In it, they argue that establishing authenticity as a leader is a two-part challenge: “First, you have to ensure that your words are consistent with your deeds; otherwise, followers will never accept you as authentic. The second challenge of authentic leadership is finding common ground with the people you seek to recruit as followers. This means you will have to present different faces to different audiences, a requirement that many people find hard to square with authenticity.”3
Goffee and Jones suggest that there are things you can consciously do to help others perceive you as being an authentic leader. Management literature calls this impression management.4 However, keep in mind that attempting to manage how people perceive you without being authentic can come off as very inauthentic and can lead to a loss of credibility. Goffee and Jones say that learning about yourself is foundational to managing your authenticity and suggest the following activities: explore your biography, return to your roots, avoid comfort zones, and seek out honest feedback. The aforementioned activities are not for the purpose of protecting your identity but for pursuing a better understanding of it. The following sections address each of these activities.
Google the phrase never forget where you come from. You will see that it is the mantra of many successful people. If someone admonishes you with such advice, it is a good sign because it means you have already attained a certain level of success.
One of the downsides of upward mobility is forgetting about or distancing yourself from your humble beginnings. A great example of not forgetting where you come from is William Leonard, former president and CEO of Aramark Corporation. Bill is an avid golfer and belongs to several prestigious golf clubs, but he enjoys playing with his friends. His private jet can whisk him off to play anywhere, but you will find him most Saturdays playing with his comrades at a course that is nice but nowhere as prestigious as his others. He has not forgotten where he comes from. You may not be CEO yet, but stay in touch with where you come from, and odds are you will make a great one!
Exploring your past is a reflective adventure in which you revisit the events and people that have most influenced your life. Robert Clinton offers a great framework for thinking about influential people in your life. He argues that growing leaders have four types of mentors in their life: upward, friendship, sandpaper, and downward.5 He uses the metaphor of a compass to diagram the relationships. Take out a sheet of paper and label north, south, east, and west. At the north point, list all of your upward mentors—people who are older than you who have had significant influence in your life. You may list people such as a grandfather, an aunt, a professor, a coach, or an author. In most cases, you probably knew the person but not in all cases. What did you learn from these people that would cause you to hold them in such high esteem?
The mentors on the east side of the compass are called friendship mentors. Friendship mentors are persons you grew up with and with whom you advanced through the life stages (i.e., attended school, started career, started family, and so on). They are people you go to for advice. Friendship mentors are often the best sounding boards. Write down your friendship mentors. Don’t limit the list to people you speak with frequently. Friendship mentors can go for years without talking, but when they connect, it is like no time has passed.
Let’s navigate across the compass to the west. Do you feel the turbulence? You should. Here is where you want to write down the names of sandpaper mentors. Sandpaper mentors are people who rub you the wrong way. They have the uncanny ability to find a flaw in whatever you do. They make you feel like you are never good enough. The beauty about a sandpaper mentor is that you don’t have to seek them out—they will find you! Reflect on the sandpaper mentors in your life. Are there any themes in what they have said to you? How did you respond to them? What was true about what they had to say to you? Although they are not pleasant, it is important to have sandpaper mentors in your life. We are not suggesting that you weight what they say over what other mentors say (unless you want to be on antidepressants the rest of your life). Try to rise above their abrasiveness and take the opportunity to learn more about yourself.
Finally, at the south point of the compass, write the names of people you are mentoring or who consider you to be their upward mentor. The list could include siblings, nieces, nephews, your own children, or people you teach, coach, or lead. What value does investing in them bring? What are you learning about yourself as a result of investing in the relationship?
We want to encourage you to examine your relationship compass and make the effort to reach out to people you listed (with the exception of the sandpaper mentors) and let them know the role they have played or are playing in your life. You don’t want to put pressure on them or you but rather acknowledge the value you place on the relationship.
Maybe it is just us, but it seems like every movie about a professional who loses her or his way returns to a small hometown, downplays success to satisfy the locals, meets an old flame, and ends up in agriculture or the arts. The theme is popular because there is something transformational about returning to your roots. Living in a highly transient world is exciting, but it can also untether us from things that matter. Listening online to a hometown radio station, attending a reunion, or reconnecting with old friends can be a catalyst for rediscovering ourselves. Going home creates the potential to be taken down a notch, built up beyond merit, or get grounded. It is in the space between that we grapple with our own story and discover our own authenticity.
Comfort zones insulate us from feeling vulnerable. Yet one of the more lauded attributes people desire to see in a leader is vulnerability. Patrick Lencioni argues that building trust, as a leader, is impossible without the ability to be vulnerable.6 Vulnerability allows you to connect on a deeper level with people. Be aware that inappropriate disclosure or a lack of contextual awareness can cause attempts at vulnerability to be counterproductive.
You can get out of your comfort zone by reading publications that are not related to your field of expertise. Engage in conversations that force you to examine your own beliefs. If you usually watch Fox News, try MSNBC every once in a while. If you are the person always arguing to cut expenses, make the pitch for ways to spend. Order something new on the menu or be bold enough to change your routine. Habits are hard to give up because they give us a sense of stability.
Adam Kahane, an accomplished strategist for Royal Dutch Shell, speaks of an out-of-the-comfort-zone experience he had while participating in the Mont Fleur Project. The Mont Fleur scenario exercise was undertaken in South Africa during 1991 and 1992, on the heels of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. In the midst of deep conflict, economist Pieter Le Roux, director of the Institute for Social Development at the University of the Western Cape, brought together a diverse group of 22 prominent South Africans—politicians, activists, scholars, and businesspeople from across the ideological spectrum—to develop and disseminate a set of stories about what might happen in their country over the next decade.
Kahane reflects on his experience: “I was struck by the fact that I was more effective on the Mont Fleur project than I had ever been before. Clearly, I had done something right, but I didn’t know what it was. Eventually I figured it out. In Mont Fleur, I had almost no time to prepare. With more time, I would have done my normal Shell thing: reading up on the problem, forming opinions, and coming in with a recommendation. I was effective because I arrived in ignorance and respect. I gave up a stance of knowing and arrogance, and replaced it with one of wonder and reverence.”7
Ibarra warns that getting out of our comfort zones “can make us feel like impostors, because it involves doing things that may not come naturally. But it is outside of our comfort zones that we learn the most about leading effectively.”8 Give yourself permission to go off script.
Seeking feedback can also move us out of our comfort zone.
A colleague of ours frequently asserts, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” It sounds great if the feedback is steak and eggs. If all of the feedback is positive, it is much easier to digest. The truth is that feedback can be intimidating, demoralizing, and hurtful, and it can leave you with a stomachache. We need all kinds of feedback, but it is tempting to leave the less positive stuff out of our diet.
It is well known that feedback is important to personal and professional growth. But we can still consciously or subconsciously thwart genuine attempts by others to give us feedback as a means of protecting ourselves. We may not even be aware of it, but we self-protect when we become defensive, make excuses, qualify our actions, or project shortcomings onto other people. Self-protecting sends the message that you are not open to feedback. But you don’t want to alienate people who want to help you maximize your potential. We trust that you’ll be able to spot the people who are not invested in you and are out to undermine your success. In those cases, when they drop a pile of horse crap on you, look around because there has to be a pony nearby.
A safe place to go for feedback is to your upward and friendship mentors. Once you build tolerance and acceptance levels for all kinds of feedback, it becomes easier to put yourself out there to colleagues, clients, and even demanding bosses. We say “build tolerance” because people who seek feedback on their performance more frequently are apt to hear more views that may be difficult to reconcile with their own.9
Don’t ever stop seeking feedback. Unfortunately, the higher you go in your organization, the more restricted you may feel when it comes to soliciting feedback.10 It is a sad phenomenon because your openness to feedback should grow with your level of responsibility.
Leadership transitions require us to move out of our comfort zone. Ibarra found that leaders in transition most often grapple with authenticity in the following situations:11
Taking charge in an unfamiliar role
Selling your ideas (and yourself)
Having a playful frame of mind
Beware that the first three challenges listed above can trigger a bad case of impostor syndrome (feeling like a fraud). Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes define the impostor syndrome as, “The psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people’s impressions.”12 Clance and Imes’ original study was focused on women executives subjected to stereotype threat, but the theory is generally accepted to apply to the general population. The original study is highly applicable to Millennial managers in that both women and Millenials are highly subject to stereotype threat. The threat women faced was being perceived as being less capable than men. The threat Millennials face is being perceived as being less capable than people older than them. The good news is that people who suffer from the impostor syndrome are usually high-achievers and don’t suffer from low self-esteem. You may struggle with the impostor syndrome if you:13
Fear people are going to expose you for a fraud
Minimize the compliments of others
Attribute your success to luck
Worry about not being able to repeat your successes
Feel less capable than your peers
The impostor syndrome is normal but can transmute into maladaptive behavior—like being inauthentic for the sake of masking your insecurities. Overcoming the impostor syndrome requires shifting evaluation from others to the self; for instance, “Did I put forth my best effort on getting the Starbucks account?” or “Did I do the right thing?.” Ultimately, recognize your self-worth is not based on what you do but on who you are as a person. Work on becoming less dependent upon the affirmation of others (see Chapter 4, “Be True to You”).
As for having a playful frame of mind, Millennials by-and-large do not have a problem with that. Playfulness among other things is characterized as the willingness to try something new, experiment, and be curious. You come plug-and-play—please don’t lose it!
Before you will be convincing, you have to first be convinced. We use the term convinced because we believe this term to be the essence of our ability to influence. Many strategic initiatives (e.g., empowerment on the frontline, diversity in the corporate boardroom, abolition of sexual harassment around the water cooler, and so on) have had minimal or no impact due to unconvincing leadership. If a leader is not convinced of something, he or she will not be effective in influencing the target group. Leaders who try to convince others to embrace an idea of which they themselves are not convinced lose credibility. Being incredulous renders a leader unbelievable, thus jeopardizing future influence attempts. In his book You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard, Bert Decker asserts, “If you don’t believe in someone on an emotional level, little if any of what they have to say will get through.”14 If you are not convinced of who you are in each relational context (peers, subordinates, or superiors), how can anybody else be?
In the next chapter, we will further explore the concept of a generation and its impact upon relating in the workplace.
1. Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2005). Managing authenticity. Harvard Business Review, 83(12), 87–94.
2. Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, 93(1/2), 52–59.
3. Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2005). Managing authenticity. Harvard Business Review, 83(12), 87–94.
4. Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor/Doubleday.
5. Clinton, R. J. (1996). Phases of leadership development. Lecture, Master’s course at Southern California College.
6. Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
7. Senge, P. M. (1999). The Dance of Change: The Challenges of Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations. New York: Currency/Doubleday.
8. Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, 93(1/2), 52–59, p. 55.
9. Stobbeleir, K., Ashford, S., & Buyens, D. (2011). Self-regulation of creativity at work: The role of feedback-seeking behavior in creative performance. Academy of Management Review, 54(4), 811–831.
10. van der Rijt, J., Van den Bosch, P., & Segers, M. S. R. (2013). Understanding informal feedback seeking in the workplace. European Journal of Training and Development, 37(1), 72–85. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/03090591311293293.
11. Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, 93(1/2), 52–59.
12. Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15, 241–247.
13. Langford, J., & Clance, P. (1993). The impostor phenomenon: Recent research finding regarding dynamics, personality, and family patterns. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 30(3), 495–501.
14. Decker, B. (1993). You’ve Got to Be Believed to Be Heard. New York: St. Martin’s Press.