When being authentic gets confused with staying stuck
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.
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 https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/penny-de-valk/women-leadership_b_4181492.html.
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.
- 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.
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