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Authenticity, the gold standard of leadership?

Nowadays, it seemed that authenticity has become the gold standard for leadership. However, a simplistic understanding of the meaning of authenticity can both hinder your growth and limit your impact. In order to understand this better, let’s take a look into 2 case scenario,

Case 1:

Cynthia, a general manager in organization A. Her promotion into that role increase her direct reports to 10-folds and expanded the range of business she oversaw and she felt a little shaky about making such a big leap. As a strong believer in transparent, collaborative leadership, she bared her soul to her new subordinates. She said,

“I want to do this job,” she said, “but it’s scary, and I need your help.”

Her candor backfired; she lost credibility with people who wanted and needed a confident leader to take charge.

Case 2:

George, an executive in organization B where people valued a clear chain of command and reporting line and made decisions by consensus. When a Dutch multinational with a matrix structure acquired the company, George found himself working with peers who saw decision making as a freewheeling contest for the best-debated ideas. That style didn’t come easily to him, and it contradicted everything he had learned about humility growing up in his country which made adaptability a difficult feat to achieve.

In a 360-degree debrief, his boss told him that he needed to sell his ideas and accomplishments more aggressively. George felt he had to choose between being a failure and being a fake.

What does this mean?

Both cases demonstrate clearly that going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity (or our true self) as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable for you (our comfort zone). As we advance in our careers or when demands or expectations change, as Cynthia, George, and countless other executives have discovered.

With respect to leadership transitions, all career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities or our authentic self: When we are unsure of ourselves or our ability to perform well or measure up in a new setting, we often retreat to familiar behaviors and styles which might just not good enough for the new setting and environment.

Therefore, we need to remember that the moments that most challenge our sense of self are the ones that can teach us the most about leading effectively. By viewing ourselves as works in progress (WIP) and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations’ changing needs. As Jim Rohn said, go to work daily to work primarily on yourself, and be able to bring more and more value to your organization and marketplace. Then, you will be able to work and lead more effectively while making or bringing more value for your time spent.

That my friends would takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculative instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.

Remember, we are a work in progress, so, try as best as we can to make a daily progress because those whose two days are equal is a loser.

On the Authority of ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar Qadi Abu Bakr al-Ansari Qadi al-Maristan (d. 535/1141) narrates:

عن ابن عمر قال قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: “من تساوى يوماه فهو مغبون  …”

Ibn ‘Umar said the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: One whose two days are equal is a loser …”

Note: This comes with a very weak isnad as a narrator ‘Abdullah bin Hussain bin Mahmuwayh who is otherwise unknown claims he heard it from Muhammad bin Ibrahim al-Mundhar in the year 332 A.H. whereas the later had died in the year 318 A.H. according to most reliable account. Therefore, Hatim Sharif al-‘Awni says, “its isnad is very weak” (isnaduhu shadid al-du’f).[2]

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