Leaders are constantly being told about the importance of being authentic, and then being taught lists of key things that great leaders do.
They’re told to have vision, to lead “tribes”, or “be up to something”, and be passionate about what they want to achieve, to engage with people authentically and at the same time to apply prescriptive models and theories to inspire people and empower them to deliver results.
For all the breathy appeals to individual authenticity, training is often based on leadership techniques that mean asking leaders to behave in an inauthentic way.
When I train people on these skills and behaviours, I am often challenged about this tension between being authentic and true to oneself on the one hand, and using behavioural models and leadership skills on the other.
How can I be me, yet behave in a way that is not me?
Many answers to this question feel wishy-washy and undermine the inspiring message of developing the self, or they let aspiring leaders off the hook, letting them get away with not developing skills that are unnatural to their personality type.
I have found the best way of explaining this is to talk about how tools empower the self, they don’t replace it.
In the above Venn diagram, being only authentic would mean operating only in the blue circle (My Personality Traits), but this is irresponsible and unhelpful. Much of that circle isn’t very useful to leadership, and the skills we need to develop may not be a great fit to our personality.
Gosh, our authentic selves might not be enough to be great leaders!
Harsh words, and some people don’t like that message, but if I may quote Sergeant Major Williams:
Oh dear, how sad, never mind
In short, if we want to be leaders (by “leader” I mean we want to be influential about stuff we care about) then we need to confidently use the most relevant bits of our personality with skill and with consistency, and not tie ourselves up in knots about being “authentic”.
As Seth Godin puts it (quoting from memory):
Consistency is more important than authenticity. Authenticity is overrated
In other words, we don’t ignore who we are, we don’t become inauthentic, but we build on those useful elements of our personality and empower ourselves with skills that we use consistently and predictably.
If we don’t do this, and we insist on “being ourselves” come what may, in some misguided attempt to put authenticity above all else, we will be less effective because just being the shoes-off undomesticated moody self is not the best way to succeed in a workplace environment populated by other people.
There are some reasons why this is so (this list is not exhaustive):
- We all have parts of our personality that are not helpful for leadership
- We all have moods, bad days, biases, and irrational moments
- Other people are different from us and want different things
- The workplace is a not a natural environment
- People trust people who are reliable, consistent, competent, and unselfish – they don’t much care what your true feelings are
This means that just being ourselves is unlikely to be as effective as consciously practising certain learned behaviours.
This can feel disappointing,
Leadership is deeply individual; it’s about who we are, what values we hold, and what passions we have that drive our personal visions.
People embark on leadership courses hoping to unleash these passions, hoping to spend time gaining a deeper understanding of who they are what drives them, and then often find the course is a series of tools that anyone could master, tools that blunt, not sharpen, their keen individual edge.
This makes it seem like the only way to be effective as a leader is to crowbar yourself into an agreed template, and maybe carefully affect an idiosyncratic eccentricity to ever-so-slightly and ever-so-harmlessly, stand out from the crowd.
It’s about finding the right balance between the best you can be in the professional environment, plus the skillful and consistent use of tools and techniques that enable you to be even more effective.
Using these techniques doesn’t make you less you.
In the words of Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones (from “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?):
Be yourself, more, with skill
Knowing the technique behind a great tennis shot doesn’t make Serena Williams’s game any less her own. It empowers her.
Knowing the right way to play a guitar chord doesn’t make Jimmy Page any less of an individual musician. It empowers him.
It’s not about replacing your personality with that of a robotic corporate leader that toes the party line, it’s about empowering you by adding technique – you still have to find the right techniques for you, and still have to practise their use.
Explaining this on leadership programmes makes a real difference to helping learners understand that they can acquire techniques that don’t feel natural, and yet still remain authentic-ish.
I like to call this YouPlus™.
It’s you, but more so – a bigger, polished, skillful version of the leadery you.
YouPlus is about being authentic-ish, it’s about building on who you are in the most positive and effective way possible to make you the best leader you can be.
Or, to reduce this post to a single quote from that great thinker Dennis the Menace:
The best thing you can do is get good at being you