Authenticity: a matter of style or substance?
Updated: Feb 17
I recently talked to Simon de Deney, a communication skills trainer and coach at Infinite Space about the value of 'authenticity' and our conversation led to this blog post.
For some time now there has been a clamour for leaders to be authentic. And why not? It’s a great concept; who wants to be labelled a fake?
Added to that it’s emboldening to be yourself at work, so, authenticity speaks to inclusion - the freedom to be ourselves - as well as empowerment - the confidence to initiate action.
However, in this blog post I want to encourage you to think a bit more deeply about authenticity as there are some hidden risks in this trait. For example, if your communication style is direct and you influence others by being highly assertive, what do you do in a situation that requires tact and listening skills?
- Do you blaze on regardless, thinking you must stay authentic?
- Do you mimic the behaviour of someone you know with a softer style and hope you
don’t come across as false?
- Do you recognise the needs of the situation and adapt your style, adding empathy to
Your approach involves making a fine judgement and the problem with the quest for authenticity is that it can lead to a closed, entrenched response – ‘I’ll stick with what I know and what I do best’. Such thinking can stifle the opportunity to learn, evolve and make good choices.
Let’s first examine the notion of our communication style being innate, something that we must stay true to. Communication is by definition interactive so it is inevitable that our style emerges over time as we learn from experiences – it is not something we were born with. Given that leadership constantly throws up new challenges why would we try to stay true to a style that is incomplete, that can evolve further? At its worst the quest for authenticity can see leaders playing up to a persona that they have created and even becoming a caricature of themselves.
We should also keep in mind that a lot of us don’t have a single style, we are more complex than that and have different facets to our personality. We can draw on these as the situation demands, which means the notion of authenticity can be overly simplistic.
So, if staying true to a communication style or personality type may not be helpful, what else should we try to remain faithful to? Perhaps a more helpful north star is our character, and by that I'm thinking of our personal values. Authentic leadership has meaning when we stay true to values that underpin and guide our behaviour. If the values are right, the behaviour and style will follow, but in ways that can be personal, flexing as the situation demands.
Anyone thinking of taking on a leadership role, could take some time to think through their values and really work out what they stand for. Articulating these, often subconscious principles, makes it easier to check how much our decision making and communication at different moments align with our values. Having a set of values as an anchor point also helps leaders operate more consistently, which is another hallmark of an authentic leader – they do not blow in the wind – they can flex but they are grounded.
As we shift the focus of thinking about authenticity onto values, we should perhaps reflect on the importance of role models. Organisations want their leaders to be role models, to set standards and demonstrate effective ways of facing challenges. Thinking through how their organisation’s values align with their own and what this means for their leadership practice helps them to be both authentic and in service to their organisation.
So, what are we left with? Is being authentic the challenge of being the best version of ourselves in any situation – true to our values but free to flex our style and draw on the richness of our personality?