When being authentic gets confused with staying stuck

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Wouldn’t you love to stop second-guessing yourself about whether you’re being authentic? Authenticity of course is seen as a highly desirable quality for leaders. But how we think about authenticity is important because it is not always about about what feels natural. Learning to do anything requires us being ‘consciously incompetent’.  It doesn’t feel natural, because it is called learning. Mastery at anything – including leadership – takes practice, doing things that feel uncomfortable because we don’t know how to do it yet. THAT is natural and normal.

Take learning to drive. When we started we were ‘consciously incompetent’ – graunching the gears and braking too hard etc, then after lots of nervous practice we moved to become ‘consciously competent’ – hey I can do this, I just got my license! Through to becoming ‘unconsciously competent’ – naturally driving without thinking about it ‘Can I actually remember each minute of driving to work this morning?’.

In Harvard Business Review January 2015, economist and London Business School Professor, Herminia Ibarra wrote about what she described as ‘the authenticity paradox’, exploring the seemingly sound argument for remaining ‘true to self’ when becoming a leader, but examining how ‘sticking to what is comfortable’ ultimately hinders and limits our development. It can also mean as women we stay in jobs too long, focusing on becoming technical experts or super reliable ‘do-ers’ because those roles are what we are already good at. The issue is that learning IS uncomfortable. And can feel risky. We need to catch ourselves defaulting to what comes naturally to us, and what feels comfortable, when that gets in the way of our development as leaders.

So don’t mistake what comes naturally for what’s authentic. Click To Tweet

I sometimes see women judge others’ behaviour harshly or avoid trying things themselves as it doesn’t feel natural to them. For example, “I’m not going to spend time networking, it is so fake”, or “I don’t want to sell myself to people within the organisation, I shouldn’t have to, I just want to do my job well,”. “None of that stuff is me, it’s inauthentic.”

Learning to be a leader doesn’t come naturally to anyone, which means there has to be a degree of practicing behaviours that will feel ‘unnatural’ when developing your leadership identity. When we are unsure of ourselves anyway as women stepping into leadership roles, this can feel like we are stepping away from what we see as our authentic, core and true self.  Or that we are ‘acting’ and not being natural. That it is is in some way not honest. That’s a destabilising and worrying idea. Hardly confidence inducing. I understand that, see my huffpost on women’s leadership development.

But you are not losing yourself, your core values remain intact, all that is changing is your leadership persona as you experiment with how to be your best self as a high impact leader.  And that leadership persona has at its’ heart you. Authenticity is being the best of who you are – with skill.

You are building new muscles as you try new things, and yes you will wake up some mornings as you do after a new regime at the gym really feeling it, but knowing in a couple of months you will be using that muscle effortlessly, putting that leadership strength to making the difference you know you can make.

Ask yourself.
  • Are there things I am avoiding learning because I am telling myself they’re just ‘not me’?
  • Do I tell myself it’s okay to do that by saying it’s inauthentic?
  • Do I judge others harshly who I see ‘practising’?
  • What small thing can I experiment with (fail small)?
  • Who can I encourage to do the same safely?
  • What attributes in myself that I value (courage, honesty, grit, creativity, determination, drive, humour…) can I draw on to be ‘consciously incompetent’ for a bit in something I know I should master to be really effective?

PS This is not about just overcoming weaknesses. Listen to the PODCAST with Sally Bibb here to understand how we can energise ourselves by building on our strengths. And how we can put them to good use to step up to the things that don’t come naturally.

Let me know your thoughts.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

If you like this, please share:

  • “Penny’s compelling approach to leadership is steeped in her wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom – she is an insightful and empowering mentor whose guidance has had a hugely positive effect on my approach to matters of presence, impact, self-awareness and authenticity.”

    Emma James COO Kamwell
  • “Penny for me is a stand out role model of women in leadership. She fought for my career, believed in me and showed firsthand what being a powerful woman in business can look like. For this especially I am eternally grateful.”

    Celine Floyd, Director of Leadership Assessment Capp & Co Ltd
  • “Penny was a catalyst for significant change, redefining the strategy and structure, developing the senior team to achieve their best through her coaching style and driving a more commercial approach. I am proud to have had the opportunity to work with such an inspirational, innovative and insightful leader.”

    Gaynor Lewis. Head of Commercial Development. ILM
  • “Penny is without hesitation one of the best CEOs I have worked with. …She is results focussed driven and challenging combined with an engaging style, an incredible sense of warmth and a clear passion for business.”

    Sara Barrie – Sara Barrie & Associates
  • “Penny is one of the most accomplished professionals I have had the privilege of working for and with…She has a real focus on results but creates an environment/culture that allows people to be their best”

    Stephen Randall Partner Melior HR
  • “Superb at managing stakeholders, calm in a crisis and always with her sense of humour close to the surface, Penny is one of the best CEOs I’ve ever worked with and I’d have no hesitation in recommending anyone take the opportunity to work with her if they get the chance”

    Kerry Simmons Marketing Director LHH
  • “Penny was my boss and inspiration for over three years…With Penny you want to work hard and be your best. And work hard we did, but we also had a great deal of fun and satisfaction in making a difference at ILM under Penny’s leadership”

    Helen Oldfield, Sales and Marketing Director, MRS
  • “She has a strong focus on customer experience and cutting through ‘stuff’ to deliver results. I can’t think of anyone better placed to provide first class advice on business and personal growth”

    Hilary Hall, Chief Executive, National Hairdressers Federation
  • “Penny is without doubt one of the most impressive senior professionals working in the people space. Her presence, intellect and stature dictate that Penny is a leading light in her field, bringing both a commercial and deeply wise approach to business. She has other rare qualities for a senior executive, genuine charm, authenticity and humility. It is always a happy experience when one gets the chance to work with Penny and a fabulous opportunity to learn.”

    John Renz, Director at Executive Action
  • “Penny was (and remains to this day) an inspiration to me and so many others. Working with her is a highlight of my career, and one that I sincerely hope happens again!”

    Rob Sayers-Brown, Customer Relationship Manager at Eliesha Training Ltd
  • “Penny is simply outstanding in the capacity of coach and mentor. She has a warm personality which coupled with her sharp business acumen, professionalism and generosity in the way she invests in others professional growth is something which I have rarely seen in leaders who have held positions such as Penny has.”

    Caroline Mellor, Global HR Director, Transformation and Effectiveness at Dentsu Aegis Network