The Authenticity Paradox – HBR #comment-section

By Salem Samhoud and Tjeertje Vlaskamp

In the Harvard Business Review of January, our attention was drawn to the article by Herminia Ibarra called ‘The Authenticity Paradox’. As practitioners in the field of leadership development we have an extensive experience with the topic of authentic leadership, or ‘connecting with yourself’ as we like to call it. Moreover, we have conducted extensive research and studied relevant literature to understand the core of authenticity and the way it can help leaders to become more effective. The first statement in the article that “authenticity can hinder your growth and limit your impact” made us curious and after reading the whole article there was no doubt about it– we had to react.
The argumentation of Ibarra is carried by the example of Cynthia; an ambitious woman who gets promoted into a senior management function. Being a firm believer in being an authentic leader, she shares her uncertainties with her colleagues. This is seen as weakness and her promotion results in failure. Conclusion; she should have faked strength and decisiveness to become effective in her new leadership role.
Definition of authenticity
First of all, what is authenticity? The article by Ibarra lacks a clear definition of authenticity. Without a clear definition, it is very difficult to define – if not impossible – to judge if it is an effective leadership style or not.
In literature there are multiple definitions of authentic leadership. However, the majority of these definitions share a specific set of elements. These core elements are;

– Self-awareness: Authentic leaders have high self-awareness. They know their strengths and weaknesses and know their impact on other people
– Transparency/honesty: Authentic leaders tend to be open and honest about their thoughts and feelings and by doing so, building trustful relations
– Guided by values: Authentic leaders let their moral standards and values guide behaviour instead of ego and/or hierarchy or power
– Open to others: Authentic leaders are open to views of others before they make decisions, getting buy-in and engaging their employees on the final decisions that are taken

Basing ourselves upon this research, we define authenticity as the level of insight in your own talents and weaknesses, combined with the capability to interact with your surroundings based on these insights. The level of self-knowledge – which we like to call connection with yourself – can be raised by interacting with others; by remaining open and honest about yourself and others, by giving and receiving honest feedback, by setting personal growth targets, etc. (Duttom et al. 2003). Being strongly connected with yourself will enable you much better to design a professional habitat in which your talents can flourish. Of course, insights in your weaknesses – and the capability to communicate them to others – also means it will be much easier to organise help (Samhoud et al. 2012).
Authenticity is a process; a journey if you want and not an end state. Being authentic has nothing to do with an unchanging core; an essence that is static and vulnerable to a dynamic world. It also doesn’t mean that you have to be naïve. On the contrary; you can be highly strategic as well as an authentic leader. As any strategists will agree to, it is crucial in any challenge to know your strengths and weaknesses.
Truly authentic means to learn – to develop yourself and adapt to new situations while staying connected to your core.
Authentic leadership and effectiveness
There is a growing body of research on the effectiveness of authentic leadership, and the outcomes are very promising. Research shows authentic leadership leads to higher optimal levels of self-esteem, higher levels of psychological well-being, enhanced feelings of friendliness, elevated performance (Grandey et al. 2005), follower emotions and follower performance (Peterson et al. 2012), and supervisor rated performance (Walumba et al. 2008).

In our own research amongst numerous teams and their leaders of different companies, we also found the same positive effects of authentic leadership on team performance, individual performance and organisational citizenship behaviour – a measure for the willingness of an employee to do extra work outside of his or her formal job description, which is widely known to be an indicator for performance.
If we look at our own experiences facilitating leadership programs at different companies, in different countries and on different levels in the organisation, we have various examples where we see that connecting with yourself as a leader has a positive effect on the performance of the leader. Of course, there are local differences, and differences between strategic or operational leaders or between young leaders and very experienced ones. But it is striking that the topic of authenticity is recognised and highly appreciated by all types of participants.
So what about the paradox?
Our definition of authenticity seems to neutralise the paradox. Being authentic can actually be very effective. Authenticity is not about being utterly transparent or unwilling to change or an excuse for ‘sticking with what’s comfortable’. It is knowing what you are good at and what your weaknesses are. By developing these insights, you can develop knowledge and connection with yourself which will result in better decisions and more durable relationships. Instead of staying in your comfort zone, this personal development is about taking risks and entering challenging and uncomfortable situations but without faking that you’re better or different than you actually are.
So let’s return to Cynthia. She reflected on her own situation by saying “Being authentic doesn’t mean that you can be held up to the light and people can see right through you.” But that was how she interpreted being an authentic leader. And instead of building trust, it made people question her ability as a leader. So in our opinion, what would an effective authentic leader have done?
When Cynthia “felt a little shaky” getting a promotion to a general management position she could have acted in a very authentic but more effective and less rigid way than she did. By admitting her uncertainty and realising that this is something to work on in a new role, she should have looked for a senior colleague or (external) coach that could have helped her in her first few months as a leader. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and acting upon it in an effective matter – without pretending to be something you are not – that is the core of being an authentic leader.