The Problem with Authenticity

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The Authenticity Paradox, by Herminia Ibarra, Harvard Business Review, January 2015

Having already written a post about one article in the current edition of Harvard Business Review here is another one. We feel that this will be of interest to a large number of learning managers as it deals with the topic of Authenticity.  As the author, Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD points out this has become the gold standard for leadership. However, what does it really mean?

Authenticity is certainly a ‘hot topic’. The piece highlights that the increase in the number of articles that use the word ‘authenticity’ in their headline or lead paragraph has risen by a factor of two and a half times since 2003. The suggestion is made that low public confidence in business leaders and low employee morale are the drivers of this trend.

The argument is made that too-rigid definitions of authenticity causes difficulties and some profound issues are raised. Below we show the three definitions of authenticity cited in the article and the challenge the author makes:
Be true to yourself. We evolve or transform ourselves over time. How can you be true to a future ‘self’?
Maintaining strict coherence between what you feel and what you say and do. You lose credibility as a leader if you disclose everything you think and feel.
Making values-based choices. When we move into bigger roles values that were appropriate can lead us astray.

The author then goes on to identify three situations where leaders she has worked with have struggled with the authenticity:
– Taking charge in an unfamiliar role.
– Selling your ideas (and yourself)
– Processing negative feedback.

The thrust of the article seems to be that to develop as leaders we need to experiment with new leadership behaviours. Rigid concepts of authenticity may prevent us doing that.

Since reading the article for the first time I have been scratching my head. I guess that’s what we look to management journals to achieve. Is Ibarra arguing that it is better not be authentic sometimes or rather that we sometimes look at authenticity in the wrong way. The cover of the HBR is, I feel, misleading. The subtitle referring to the article on the front cover is ‘When it’s OK to fake it till you make it.’ The subtitle at the start of the article itself, however, is ‘Why feeling like a fake can be a sign of growth.’ Feeling like a fake is a different thing than being a fake.

In order to try and understand better I picked up the book ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led by You’ by Goffee and Jones of London Business School, which I first read in 2006 when it was published. They talk about balancing Authenticity and Skill and use a 2 by 2 matrix (set out in Appendix B of their book). They argue that effective leaders combine these two attributes. Using this framework I think Ibarra is arguing that managers in new, often more senior, roles need to enhance their skills to develop. This is subtly, but fundamentally different from ‘faking it’.

This article is well worth a read by anyone interested in Leadership. Her book ‘Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader’ is to be published in February. We plan to review it here.

View the article here

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