managemnet company strategy managemanet What Makes an “Authentic” Leader?

What Makes an “Authentic” Leader?

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HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you. How do you define authenticity, as a leader? If you associate authenticity with what feels comfortable, then you may be holding yourself back. Herminia Ibarra is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. She says that if you want to grow as a leader, you must have leave your comfort zone and try new behaviors. Eventually, she says, you’ll arrive at a more authentic version of yourself. In this episode, you’ll learn how to try out new leadership behaviors in lower stakes, less visible settings – to slowly improve your skills. You’ll also learn how to balance authenticity with vulnerability when you communicate with your team. If you’re moving into a new leadership role or you’re navigating organizational change, this episode is for you. It originally aired on HBR IdeaCast in February 2015. And just a note — we recorded this by phone. While the audio quality isn’t great, the conversation is. I think you’ll enjoy it. Here it is.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. Today, I’m talking with INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra, author of the new HBR cover story, “The Authenticity Paradox” and the book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. Herminia, thanks so much for talking with us today.


SARAH GREEN: So, I find it really interesting that you’ve identified this paradox of authenticity. And I thought we could just start there. What is the paradox? How do you define it?

HERMINIA IBARRA: OK. The paradox is that a lot of times in order to become more authentic, more fully yourself, but in a new capacity, you can’t start that way. You actually have to do things that don’t come naturally and that sometimes make you feel like a fake or an impostor. But by kind of getting out of your comfort zone and plowing through that discomfort and trying some new and different things, you eventually arrive at a more authentic version of yourself. Authentic but different than how you were in the past because the worst thing of all is to define authenticity in terms of being as you’ve always been.

SARAH GREEN: So that’s interesting, the idea that trying to kind of be who you have always been might actually hold you back in a way?


SARAH GREEN: So what kind of situation, specifically, might tend to bring out this paradox? Like when should you be on the lookout for it?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Well it really hits hard when you’re moving into a role that’s new and unfamiliar, or when the situation around you is changing so much that you fall into the classic what got you here won’t get you there. And so that you know that you’ve got to do some new and different things that don’t feel comfortable, but they don’t feel like they’re really you. Just to give you an example, a great one is when you start having to sell your ideas a bit more broadly, kind of beyond people who have the same kind of professional training and who use your language and know where you’re coming from. And so it feels to people just really fake. It feels contrived. It feels like they’re having to dumb down their ideas. That the salesperson isn’t who they are. But when it comes down to it, you have to sell your ideas in order to get traction.

SARAH GREEN: So what is behind this urge to kind of protect ourselves and to not feel like that fake person? Because I mean theoretically we like to be promoted and move up the ladder. So it doesn’t seem to make sense in a way that we would kind of protect this sense of self quite so tenaciously.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Well, I think what happens is as you step up to something new, when you’re making a transition there’s a lot of unknown. It’s unfamiliar. And so you’re kind of attracted. You want to move up. You want to succeed. At the same time, you don’t know if you really want to change in that direction. You don’t know if you’re going to be successful. You don’t really know if you want to become that person. Oftentimes you have examples in your mind of people in that capacity who you do not want to be like. And so the bit of an approach avoidance. And there’s also just having the fear of not doing well, of kind of getting out of your competency area and not performing as you always have.

SARAH GREEN: So it’s interesting. And that’s kind of an interesting segue to something else you talk about in the book and in the article which is this sense of developing yourself through trial and error, which to me sounds kind of in a way sort of charming and in effect, that would be fun. And then I sort of think about what that would actually mean. It would mean making errors. So what if you feel uncomfortable with that idea? Or you don’t feel like you even have the margin for error?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Of course it’s uncomfortable. You know, Carol Dweck has this lovely idea about the difference between a performance orientation and a learning orientation. You need to have both. But when we get too stuck and insist too much on excellent performance and no margin for error, then you don’t learn anything new. And after a while you just don’t have the relevant skill set anymore. You stagnate. Now the trick is to use trial and error smartly and not just do anything particularly in context where you’re very visible. So one of the things that I often suggest to people is to try out new and different behaviors a bit on the side, maybe in the context of a project or a [INAUDIBLE]. Even some kind of activity that you do on an extracurricular basis. And that way you start getting a little bit of practice so that you feel more comfortable. One of the reasons why people love to do things like role plays when they take a class or go to a program is it gives them a little bit of safety to try out something new and different that then they can transfer back into the more visible situation in their day job.

SARAH GREEN: So say you’ve been moving into this new role, you’ve been doing some of this trial and error, and you’ve been sort of doing your best to expand and expand your comfort zone, but it’s beginning to feel like you’ve expended a lot of energy, it maybe is just not working, you’re wondering maybe this new role, whatever it is, new assignment isn’t quite right for you. Do you give up then and try to go back to your old roll? What do you do at that point?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Right. So you’re not always going to be in the right role for you. You know, sometimes we make mistakes. We stretch too far. We stretch too fast. So that’s absolutely possible. On the other hand, it depends what you’re trying to stretch towards. I talk a lot about how people move into bigger leadership roles. Now sometimes it’s a big stretch if you’ve really been working more in an expert capacity. And sometimes you find that you actually do prefer the expert work as opposed to leading and creating change and getting buy-in. And so there’s always room, after the fact, that you’re simply going to have learned that what you prefer to do is something else. On the other hand, you do have to give it time because leadership behaviors are not things that we learn automatically. Getting good at listening, getting good at delegating, getting good at communicating your ideas more powerfully, that takes some time. And part of the learning process is just sticking with it long enough. Now something that helps a lot is not going at it alone. And really drawing from your network to get some feedback, to role model, to get some input on what you’re doing because definitely if you’re going at it alone, it’s going to be a lot harder and take a lot longer.

SARAH GREEN: Now when you say it takes a long time, how long are you sort of thinking about? I mean, in your experience as a teacher of leaders, how long does it really take?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Well it depends on how big the stretch is. And it depends on what you’re trying to do. But certainly, when you’re moving into a role that’s really quite unfamiliar, it could take a good six months before you start feeling a bit more comfortable. And honestly, some of the things we’re trying to learn take people much longer. You know, how many people struggle with getting the balance right of delegating versus directing to a team? You have to play around with it to get the formula right. And it’s going to be different with different groups. After a while you start to pick up a bit more judgment. But it can take quite a bit some time before you get around to it.

SARAH GREEN: Now, I’m wondering here if you are in this new role and you’re trying some of the things, and that you’re sort of aware that they’re not working, do you think it’s a good idea as a leader trying to be authentic that you would then sort of disclose some of these struggles to a team? I mean, is that a good idea?

HERMINIA IBARRA: Right. So that’s one of the big ones that comes up. So how transparent should I be about what I’m going through, about the fact that I need help, about some of the doubts that I have? And you have the two extremes. Some people go too far and they kind of wear their heart on their sleeve and they share too many of the doubts. And that’s kind of scary for your direct reports because they’re looking to you for some guidance. And sometimes it’s better to have those conversations with a coach or with a trusted peer as opposed to the people who are looking up to you. Other people, on the other hand, never express any vulnerability whatsoever. In fact, they respond to this kind of being in a bit over their heads with overconfidence. And that too you can go too far because then you don’t get some of the help that you need.

SARAH GREEN: One of those sort of terms you’ve used is you have to learn to be a chameleon. What is a chameleon? How do you get better at it?

HERMINIA IBARRA: So a chameleon has often a bit of a pejorative connotation meaning someone who is going to fake it till they make it, a kind of a zealot figure who just kind of imitates somebody else, almost absorbed their persona and becomes it. What a chameleon means is somebody who can kind of shift shapes, morphs, adapt to a situation and be what that situation is asking of them. You know, in a way, it’s not that far from what we call situational leader, which sounds a lot more palatable. But be a chameleon simply means that you have a broad enough repertory that you can adapt to different kinds of situations.

And so with one audience maybe you can be a lot more directive and authoritative. With another audience you can be much more participative and collaborative in inquiry and asking questions. That’s what it really means. And I think the way to go about it, and I think what really helps people to adopt some of that is simply to think about it as learning from role models. When you don’t know exactly what’s the best way to act, identify some people that you respect who are successful and see what they’d do and try to get a bit inside their heads and see what kind of elements of what they do. And these are usually stylistic things, not what they do, but how they do it. And start trying to tailor some of those things to yourself.

SARAH GREEN: That’s perfect. And I think that’s very true. So I guess one of the other things that I found really interesting about the book and the article was your sort of analysis of our current understanding of the authentic mode in leadership. As it’s been discussed over the last 10 years or so, I’m sort of estimating, maybe even longer, but we’ve really talked about in a very sort of to be an authentic leader is to be transparent and confessional. And you’ve said that’s actually pretty American, that understanding of authenticity. And there’s a weird conformity to it as well. So I would love it if you’d just walk us through your thinking on that.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Right. So I think there’s a difference between just the general notion of being an authentic leader that we all buy into. And then the kind of more popular notion of how you become it, kind of complete with training programs and seminars, and so on. And what I have gotten from that, just from listening to people talk about it, is that the way you’re supposed to go about it is to share as much as you can, personal stories, divulge whatever you can about yourself. And that is extremely uncomfortable for people from cultures that do not thrive on self-disclosure, you know, from cultures where you’re expected to get to know someone better before you become quite personal with them. And what I mean by conformist about it is that there seems to be almost a formulaic aspect. It’s people talk all the time about the importance of being authentic. People feel like they need to know everything about you as a person, even though that is really a process that takes time. And again, having lived outside the United States for so many years and teaching people from so many different cultures, for some what we’d be asking is a very, very unnatural act and something that they have to learn to develop over time and in a way that is a little bit more tailored to their culture.

SARAH GREEN: So, we sort of run a wide gamut here different thoughts and ideas on this issue, but I guess if there’s sort of one sort of final thought or instruction you would want to leave with people, what would that be? What’s the sort of central message you’re hoping people take from this?

HERMINIA IBARRA: The central message is that being authentic does not mean being as you always have been. Being authentic means striving towards a future self that is going to be more effective as a leader, that is going to be more fulfilled at work, that’s going to be more confident, that’s going to have more impact. To get from a to b, it’s not a straight line. You don’t necessarily know how to do it until you start trying it. Once you start trying it, and you know, think about somebody trying to become a better communicator. When they start, it’s not going to be that great if they really haven’t been good at it before. They have to practice. They have to think about how to tell a good story. They have to think about how to touch people emotionally. When you haven’t done those things before, they’re not going to come out as you wish they would. But with time and effort, you can get there. And in the end, that may be the most authentic view there is. But you would have never guessed it years before saying, oh, I’m just not a good communicator. Let me not get myself into roles that require that of me, as opposed to saying I want to have more impact. I don’t know how to do this. It’s going to take me out of my comfort zone. Let me just try and we’ll see what happens.

SARAH GREEN: Well Herminia, this has been enormously helpful. I and my future selves and our listeners future selves all thank you for spending some time with us today.

HERMINIA IBARRA: Great. Thank you so much, Sarah.

HANNAH BATES: That was Herminia Ibarra in conversation with Sarah Green on the HBR IdeaCast. Ibarra is the author of the book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from the Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. We’re a production of the Harvard Business Review – if you want more articles, case studies, books, and videos like this, find it all at HBR dot org. This episode was produced by Anne Saini and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Music by Coma Media. Special thanks to Rene Barger for his notes and his support. And thanks, as always, to Maureen Hoch, Adi Ignatius, Karen Player, Ramsey Khabbaz, Nicole Smith, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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