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Why Being Authentic Is A Lot Harder Than It Sounds

Of all the things I know I should be doing to be a better leader, I have to say that working on being more authentic would come way down the list. Actually, let’s be honest, it wouldn’t even be on the list.

Come off it! I’m a decent, genuine, real person; don’t try telling me I’m not “authentic”! Besides, there are plenty of other things that are far more pressing for me to develop—trust me.

Or so I thought—until I started to peel back the onion of authenticity, and think about what it really, truly means.

“Be yourself.”

Is that it?

It sounds so easy (my mother’s well-meaning voice sending my twenty-something self off to my first ever interview, “Just be yourself, darling, and you’ll be fine,” as my stomach grumbled in terror).

But that’s exactly where authenticity starts to get complicated. Be myself?! In an interview? Or in a high-profile presentation, disciplinary with a team member, new business pitch where you’re trying desperately to impress, tough client meeting, grilling by the Board… or any other pressurized situation you care to think of.

Because being authentic is easy when the going is easy. When the going gets tough, it becomes correspondingly tough to stay true to yourself.

The truth—as you have no doubt experienced—is that at times it can be incredibly hard to “just be yourself”.

This is often particularly the case for women, as we can feel under pressure (whether real or imagined) to become something we’re not at work in order to fit in or advance—especially if that workplace is heavily male-dominated or stuck in prizing a command and control style of leadership that goes counter to women’s naturally more inclusive approach.

What happens? Unconsciously fearing we are not “good enough” for the situation in hand, we put on the behavior that we think is likely to go down best.

But then, as Kathy Lubar, author Harvard Business Review’s Presence – how to get it, how to use it, puts it, “When under pressure to perform or in difficult situation, we often end up coming across in ways we never intended and our authentic selves seem to run for cover. And when our body language contradicts our message, we lose credibility and trust and come across as dishonest or phoney.”

Leading Aspire Executive Coach Carolyn Dawson shares the example of a senior woman she worked with who got stuck in this trap—but did manage to find her way out. “This woman was working in a really male-dominated industry, and had absorbed those macho traits to the point that she was considered overly assertive and totally lacking in empathy. What’s more, behind the mask, there was a huge personal cost to not being authentic that had led to her feeling incredibly stressed.”

“Through our coaching,” Carolyn adds, “she found the courage to act more authentically, bringing out her more ‘feminine’ leadership qualities which she had previously kept hidden, such as encouraging participation, sharing power and information, enhancing other people's sense of self-worth, and getting others excited about their work. The result was that she gained a better profile as a leader from her Managing Director, her team was happier and performed better… and she felt 100% less stress, while still delivering!”

A key to authenticity, therefore, is developing the self-confidence that you are indeed “enough” as you are, and the courage to stay true to yourself, even in squeeze situations.

But authenticity doesn’t stop at “being yourself”; in fact, you need to:

“Be your best self.”

The whole point of authenticity is that you can’t be perfect all the time. Indeed, Professor Gareth Jones, author of 'Why Should Anyone Be Led By You – What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader' , advises that anyone who wants to be an authentic leader needs to show that they’re human, selectively revealing weaknesses in order to better connect with people.

We all have a resident inner critic who frequently tells us we’re deficient in some way, and—let’s face it—we also all have plenty of grumpy moments when we’re simply not at our best. But being authentic doesn’t mean you suddenly have to let it all hang out, in all moments, to all people!

Professor Jones has it right when he says it’s not enough just to ‘be yourself’: “If you want to be more effective: be yourself—more—with skill.”

In other words, being authentic is about understanding who you are at your best, and consciously trying to make sure you are true to your best more often. Focus on becoming a first-rate version of yourself, rather than a second-rate version of someone else.

A simple way to develop your “best self” is to do what Marcus Buckingham, author of 'Find Your Strongest Life—What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently',  calls a Love It/Loathe It log.

Over the course of a week, carry around a notebook with two columns, one headed ‘Loved It’; the other headed ‘Loathed It’. As you go about your day (and it’s important to complete this in the moment, not store it all up for the end of the day, or you will have forgotten how you really felt), jot things down in the relevant columns. You will build up a picture of what puts you at your best—and what drags you down. The following week, make sure you do one thing from your ‘Loved It’ list more than you normally would. At the same time, choose one thing from your ‘Loathed It’ list to eliminate for good.

Understanding, and then playing to, your strengths, values and passions as consistently as possible will greatly increase your level of authenticity.

Which peels the onion of authenticity down to its third, and deepest, layer:

“Be your best self—then do what you promise.”

Authenticity has become an over-used concept. Look around and you’ll find ‘authentic’ African safaris, ‘authentic’ jeans, ‘authentic’ pizzas… everyone wants a piece of the authentic action (even if, ironically, it isn’t terribly authentic at all).

And it extends to the office, where ‘authentic leadership’ has been a buzz phrase for a number of years now.

Because we hear about authenticity so much, we’ve become numb to what it really means in practice. The word rolls off the tongue far easier than the actions associated with actually living and working authentically ever can.

The bigger point to authenticity, therefore, is not just being yourself—or even being your very best self (although these are without doubt worthy components of it).

The secret (and life-long challenge) of authenticity is truly ‘living it’—having the courage to stand up for what you believe in, and to walk your talk in terms of what you tell both others and yourself is most important to you.

Best-selling author Seth Godin sums it up: “Authenticity, for me, is doing what you promise, not ‘being who you are’".

As someone who has worked with thousands of senior women leaders, Dr Samantha Collins, CEO of Aspire, observes, “Many women say that being authentic is important to them, but I don’t see so many people actually being and doing it consistently—especially when the going gets tough. When you get challenged or stressed, it takes bravery to not fold and over-adapt, or just walk away, especially in this economy.”

For Dr Collins, authenticity is the absolute foundation to a leader developing a strong presence and making a positive impact. People who are authentic are deep and inspiring, and tapping into what they really believe in is what makes leaders put their heads above the parapet in the first place.

“What’s also important to remember,” she adds, “is that authenticity is not the be-all and end-all. To have the impact and influence you want to have with your customers, colleagues and bosses, authenticity needs to be combined with authority (which comes from experience, knowledge and confidence), and agility (so you can communicate to different people in a way that they will respond well to).”

What’s your step to being more authentic?

To live authentically takes courage, self assurance, and an honest look at who you are at your most authentic self.

Carolyn Dawson gives this challenge to her coaching clients: take off your mask and look yourself in the eye; ask yourself, “Who am I at my best, and how well am I living up to what I truly believe is important? Where do I fall short?”

What you would say; what you would start doing; what would you stop doing; how you would dress; what would be different—if you were being 100% authentic?

Posted by Rebecca Hourston, Director of Programs on Wednesday, November 10, 2010
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