How many leaders have been successful with that strategy?
Yet that’s the premise put forward in the most recent Harvard Business Review cover story. The article, “The Problem with Authenticity,” proposes that being true to oneself is limiting to one’s career success.
The problem with the author’s premise is in her very definition of authenticity.
“Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like imposters, we tend to latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what is comfortable,” writes Herminia Ibarra, who goes on to say that this core sense of self is career limiting, can cause you to lose credibility and even lead to poor decision making.
The HBR piece put the idea of authenticity in such a rigid box as to make it not useful for much of anything. Its notion of authenticity is stripped of the richness, surprise, gratification and the loyalty it can bring.
Authenticity is not so strict as to be a straight jacket. Rather it is a kind of grounding that gives the confidence to experiment, try and fail, and sometimes soar to incredible new successes. Indeed I find nothing about being authentic that requires me to stick to my comfort zone. Quite the opposite. A true sense of self emboldens us to take risks, creates deeper, more genuine relationships and ultimately may be the spring pad for our success.
Of course, authenticity doesn’t stand alone – it is informed and deepened by other character traits. When my husband opened the gift box I gave him, broke into laughter and declared the shirt “hideous,” his hilarious assessment was not only authentic, but just as important, trusting. When we are authentic, we say as much about our respect for colleagues and customers as we do about ourselves. Of course, delivery, timing and knowing your audience are still important factors in conveying your message, but at its core it must be true to who you are.
Ibarra also proposes that authenticity limits personal growth, arguing we must try on different skins to grow. But that implies authentic people don’t change, that we are the same person at 40 or 50 who we were at 20 and 30. But like it or not, we are never finished in growing and evolving. Authenticity doesn’t change that. We are guided by values – and those may evolve with experience (ask any CEO who has been through a crippling crisis). But this is different from “faking” it, which is acting in such a way you don’t believe in.
Finally, authentic isn’t always the recipe for success. Uber’s business stumbles and the reputation challenges that have plagued it are likely an authentic representation of the mindset of its leadership.
But we know that many have fallen from grace for such hubris.
The problem with fake it till you make it is what happens when you make it. Faking it just ends up as being, well, fake. And we’re pretty good these days at sniffing out and discarding the fakes.
One of my favorite quotes on authenticity was printed on the inside of a chocolate wrapper and comes from a French rugby player: Remain true to yourself, for it is from authenticity that you draw your strength. Discover your true self. Then exercise it in ways that make our world more meaningful, true and inspiring.