Authenticity Is Overrated: Building A More Effective Leadership Style
I bristle a bit when I’m asked to asked to speak to the “quest for authenticity,” especially in the context of women’s leadership. I’ve seen authenticity and vulnerability depicted as uniquely female skills that are even described as leadership “superpowers.”
But my worry is that authenticity and vulnerability are often oversimplified or conflated in a way that is ultimately not helpful to a woman’s career. There are times when transparency is vital in team building. When events are overwhelming and unpredictable, most executives have experienced the temptation to answer a question about supply chain challenges or economic hurdles with an honest, “I have absolutely no idea what we should do.”
The problem is, as Toni Morrison has wisely noted, “Somebody has to take responsibility for being a leader.”
My experience has shown that the most effective leaders are much more focused on the needs of those around them than hyper-focused on themselves. Great leaders demonstrate a keen awareness of who they are leading, where they are leading them, and what’s needed to reach that goal. That means that effective leadership depends on actions and behaviors that will help your team move in a specific direction.
There’s an important nuance here. Sometimes, sharing a bit more of yourself will help your team move towards a common goal. But the leadership skill that will equip you to identify when that’s needed requires you to be fully aware of, understanding, and appreciating the feelings and thoughts of others.
That’s empathy, not vulnerability.
In my own leadership, I’ve seen that my teams need me to demonstrate vision and guidance at critical moments. They want to know that I have our goals and our mission in sight, and that the work we are doing together is part of a determined, purposeful plan that will position us to achieve our goals. That doesn’t mean that I always need to be upbeat, the eternal cheerleader. But it does require a confident demeanor. Our weekly team meetings always begin with a quick check-in to see how each team member is doing. The purpose is to identify what they need to continue to make progress.
This is an opportunity for me to assess what’s working and what needs to change. It’s an opportunity to gather knowledge and build awareness, always in the context of our mission and goals. Then, I must use that understanding to empower the team for what’s next.
I’ve been lucky enough to work for and with several excellent leaders. I’ve learned from these individuals that there is a leadership posture that conveys competence. I’m sure that these effective leaders weren’t always certain of the outcomes of our efforts, but I trusted them to move us in the direction of our goals, correcting course when necessary. Their words and actions inspired that trust. They seemed confident, so I had confidence in their leadership.
That’s why I say that authenticity is overrated. Great leaders act like leaders, despite their own fears and uncertainty. They have mastered the skill of identifying what’s truly needed to inspire others.