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Is "Be yourself" terrible advice for a leader?

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Authentic leadership is about being your best self, not your actual self

I was on a leadership programme 10 years ago and was given the best advice ever – which was that good leaders are authentic, so always be true to yourself as a leader

Bob explained this to his new colleague at the bank where they both worked. 

If you follow that advice I have found you can’t go wrong. Being authentic is the silver bullet to great leadership”.

Is "Be yourself" terrible advice for a leader?  Is Bob right?

Most leading companies globally are focusing on developing "authentic leaders" within their ranks.

Executive courses at Harvard Business School in authentic leadership development are oversubscribed and expanding every year.

As the Harvard Business Review declared in January 2015, “Authenticity has emerged as the gold standard for leadership.”

Yet new research from the field of relationships suggests that a subtle different approach is more important to developing leadership and the relationships that leaders need to be successful.

Muping Gan and Serena Chen from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, looked at how we define ourselves and whether authenticity develops from being our true self or who we would like to be (our ideal self).

Gan and Chen posed this question on an online Amazon survey, 70 percent of respondents thought that the ability to be your actual self was the important ingredient for being authentic in a relationship rather than aiming to be your ideal self.

However, when diving deeper into how to create authenticity, the researcher discovered it was not about being our actual selves that was important but that it was more about trying to be our ideal selves.

Authentic leadership is about striving to behave as the kind of person you want to be not the person you really are...

The researchers conducted several online surveys involving hundreds of participants in different relationships (new to decades long). Participants were asked to describe how they acted in their relationships, were they more like their ideal self or actual self. They were asked to rate how much they felt they could be themselves with their partners and how authentic they felt they were?

In follow-up surveys participants were also asked to complete some research, they were asked to imagine different scenarios where they had to think about how they could act as their ideal self, whereas in the control group they were asked to consider when they are unable to act like their actual selves with their partner. They were then questioned about feelings of relationship authenticity.

The results of the surveys and research all followed the same pattern, the more one thinks and behaves like one’s ideal self the higher the feelings of authenticity. Thinking and behaving like one’s actual self in the relationship did not increase feelings of relationship authenticity.

These results remained the same even when factoring out the contribution of other more general relationship factors, like relationship satisfaction and commitment.

The key takeaway for leaders is - to develop authentic relationships you need to strive to behave as the kind of person you want to be not the person you actually are...

The EBW View

The essence of authentic leadership is Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, as articulated by Daniel Goleman.

People with high IQs and low EQs can hardly be called authentic leaders.

In contrast to IQ, which basically does not change in one’s adult lifetime, Business EQ can be developed. The first and most important step on this journey is gaining self-awareness.

Daniel Goleman (in his research in early 2000), laid out 6 styles of leadership that have a differing impact on the financial success of organisations.

The key to successful leadership, therefore, is recognising which leadership style is your actual style and what should be your ideal style for developing authentic leadership and the success of your department or organisation.

Here are 4 top tips for developing authentic leadership:

  1. Engage in reflection and introspective practices. Take time every day to step back from the 24/7 world, turn off all electronics and reflect on what is most important to you – what does your ideal self (leadership) look like? Contemplate are you achieving the next 3 points?....

  2. Seek honest feedback. One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to understand how other people see them, which is often quite different to how they want to be seen.

  3. Understand your leadership purpose.  What do you really want to achieve? Also make sure you have the right people aligned to your leadership purpose. Do you understand their Emotional Intelligence and their capabilities and what they need to create a positive impact?

  4. Develop your ideal leadership style for different situations. There are times when leaders need to make difficult decisions that are sure to displease people and they’ll need to give tough feedback. At other times they need to be inspiring, good coaches, and consensus builders. Successful leaders have to strive to achieve various leadership styles that are often far removed from their true leadership style. They won’t always get it right but they aren’t inauthentic if they come from a genuinely authentic place.

There is no doubt that Bob was close in his leadership advice about being true to yourself, but the research from Muping Gan and Serena Chen suggests if you want your followers to feel you are being authentic then you have to be more than be true to yourself you have to aspire to be your ideal self as well.

Muping Gan, Serena Chen: Being Your Actual or Ideal Self? What It Means to Feel Authentic in a Relationship: Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin Vol 43, Issue 4, 2017

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Based on over 20 years of worldwide use and research, it enables you to get leaders and teams to understand why they behave the way they do and use a highly effective coaching framework to improve their occupational performance.

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