March 24


Authentic Leadership: Have We Gone Too Far?

By Sara Canaday

March 24, 2016

career, leadership, professional success, workplace

While many professionals today have embraced the popular concept of the “authentic leader,” I often wonder whether that pendulum has swung too far to one side. In fact, this latest trend prompts me to think, “here we go again.”

Authentic Leadership

Don’t get me wrong; I think authenticity is an important attribute for leaders. It gives them the ability to move through different situations in a more natural way, displaying equal parts of confidence and vulnerability. Truly authentic leaders are often admired for their sincerity. They can create strong connections with their teams because of their genuine, organic approach.

Here’s my problem. Some leaders have jumped on the authenticity bandwagon with a little too much gusto. In the name of being authentic, they adopt a hold-nothing-back, tell-it-like-it-is style that comes across as overly direct and insensitive. Frequently unapologetic for their behavior, they point to research showing that teams succeed with managers who apply the rule of “what you see is what you get.”

In many cases, these abrupt leaders masquerading as examples of authenticity are undermining their own efforts to impact and influence others. They might be enjoying the freedom to “be themselves” at all times, but their colleagues and coworkers might sometimes prefer a little more decorum.

How did this happen? How did leaders get the impression that authenticity with no holds barred was the best way to get the results they wanted?

Deliberate Leadership

For years, leaders were expected to be more measured and deliberate in their interactions with everyone around them, displaying polished professionalism in calm and in chaos. They wanted to appear prepared and thoughtful, carefully planning communications rather than leaving them to chance. They worked hard to understand the viewpoints of their audiences, and they tailored their messages to land with the greatest impact. This customized approach made others feel valued and helped to build strong connections.

As you might guess, this was another time when the pendulum hit the far side.

Those who went overboard with deliberate leadership began to sound stilted, phony or disingenuous. Even manipulative. Messages were perceived as forced and disconnected. Motives were questioned, and workplace morale took a dive. That’s exactly what ushered in the era of authenticity. Cue the trumpets.

In both cases, the moral of the story is the same:  you can get too much of a good thing.

A Balanced Approach

I believe it’s time to center the pendulum and encourage leaders to find a comfortable balance between authenticity and intentionality. Both approaches have equal value, so the key is knowing when to apply each one. As with many situations, considering our impact on others should be the guide.

Imagine a team working frantically to solve a crisis with a top client. Everything’s on the line, since failure would mean significant lost revenue. Clearly, the leader is feeling intense pressure. But if she authentically discloses her fear and inner panic, she might be infecting her team with doubt and causing them to question her abilities. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to appear unaffected or detached. The best way for her to inspire and motivate her team during a crisis is by balancing those attributes:  concerned yet confident, invested yet in control.

To maximize your influence as a leader, avoid the temptation to become hyper-focused on whatever communication style happens to be popular at the moment. Balance remains timeless. With practice, you can learn which approach will generate the best results while avoiding unintended problems. Consistently balancing authentic and deliberate leadership approaches gives you the control and flexibility you need to dramatically accelerate your business success.

Sara Canaday

About the author

Sara began her journey working full-time while she earned an MBA. As she climbed the ladder of corporate America, she repeatedly observed a surprising phenomenon: the most successful people weren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ or best job skills. She recognized instead that career advancement was much more closely linked with how people applied their knowledge and talents — their capacity to collaborate, communicate, and influence others.

Today, Sara is happily fulfilling that commitment as a keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. These venues have given her the opportunity to mentor and support thousands of people in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.

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