I was at a coaching session with a senior manager of a services company. We were discussing the challenges that she was facing with some specific team leaders. At one point, when discussing solutions and action steps, she asked me "Should I just be myself or try this instead?" She was thinking of having a different approach which would not have been her natural response.
The question struck me because, on the one hand, I believe in authentic leadership. I believe that leaders should naturally be interested in performance through people. They should naturally be assertive and offer constructive feedback and appreciation, and naturally communicate the purpose or the mission. Leaders should be natural and authentic at all times because their role is not linked to a schedule (ex: from 9 am to 5 pm). It is a 24/7 role where people are watching your behaviors and words, and are translating them into things to consider (follow) or to criticize.
But, on the other hand, I also believe in self-awareness and the principle of life-long learning and constant improvement. I believe that there are always new things (skills, competencies, techniques, etc) to learn and develop. I believe that a leader must be a role model, so, you sometimes might do things that are outside your comfort zone. This is how learning happens: you try new things or you try to do things differently than before, by stepping outside your comfort zone. However, this means that you are not authentic. You change something about your behavior and, during that time, you are not authentic.
Usually, in these kinds of moral dilemmas I would give the classic response of consultants give: it depends. But this time, I challenged myself to find a pattern and a process that I can follow in every situation (note: I'm being unauthentic). After some research and self-reflection, I found this:
Adult learning is autonomous: adult learners are actively involved in the learning process such that they make choices relevant to their learning objectives (they learn when they choose to learn and commit to learning)
Adults bring experience to learning: adults connect their past experiences with their current knowledge-based activities. Experience is both a plus and a minus. It is a plus because it is a vast resource. It is a minus because it can lead to biased views and presuppositions.
Adult learning is relevancy-oriented: one of the best ways for adults to learn is by relating the assigned tasks to their own learning goals
Adults are task-oriented: education is subject-centered, but adult training should be task-centered
According to research published by the Harvard Business Review (study of 195 leaders in 15 countries over 30 global organizations), the top 10 leadership competencies are:
If we combine these competencies into 5 major themes, we get the following top 5:
Demonstrates strong ethics and provides a sense of safety.
Empowers others to self-organize.
Fosters a sense of connection and belonging.
Shows openness to new ideas and fosters organizational learning.
While some of these competencies may not surprise you, they're all difficult to master, in part because improving them requires acting against our nature.
Now, getting back to our question: Is "Be Yourself" a terrible advice for a leader? Should we just be ourselves, be natural or try to be something else, try to behave or act differently? Instead of a short answer, I believe that this complex matter requires a more holistic approach.
I think that in life we have to keep a balance. In this case, balance means that we generally have to behave naturally and be authentic. Usually people figure it out when we play a role. However, in specific situations, when we want to change our behavior or our way of doing things, we must change something (learn). In this specific case, this means that you have to act, or "NOT be yourself"!
If you are an aggressive communicator or react aggressively in stressful situations, but want to become a more assertive communicator, you do NOT want to be yourself. You want to be self-conscious about that behavior and change it. This implies acting against your true nature. Some say "fake it till you make it", but really don't (it's demonstrated that it does not work that way). More than just faking it, you have to consciously change your behavior and try to build it into your true self (perhaps aided by a coach), so that it does not feel fake anymore.
Engage in reflection and introspective practices: take time every day to step back, turn off your electronics and reflect on what is most important to you. This can be done through introspective practices that are growing rapidly in popularity, such as meditation, mindfulness, prayer, long walks to clear one's mind, or simply sitting quietly and reflecting. Personally, meditation did not work for me (I just fall asleep every time :P) but I do practice walks in parks or less crowded streets (usually after lunch or in the evening).
Understand your leadership purpose: what is your purpose as a leader and how can you align people around that specific purpose. This is far more important than focusing entirely on achieving success in terms of metrics: money, fame and power. However, ultimately, this produces sustained success in those metrics as well. People are going to have a more powerful intrinsic motivation if they are in for the purpose. The way we do this is by adhering to a clear set of values and to a mission statement (which we established together with the team). These are the foundations of the company and we evaluate our strategies and decisions according to these. We also have a yearly kick-of meeting where we plan for the upcoming year and have meaningful discussions.
Seek honest feedback: from multiple sources - colleagues (peers), subordinates, friends - about yourself and your leadership styles and practices. It's important for you to understand how others see you, and then confront that image with the image of yourself or how you want to be seen. A weekly practice that we do in the team is appreciation: at the end of our weekly meeting we offer appreciation to our colleagues. Another practice is regular discussions with each member of the team (staying interviews) where I get structured feedback and suggestions on how can I help with specific challenges.
Develop flexibility: have different approaches according to the specific situation or task at hand. There are situations where you have to be more inspirational, but also times that require strong arguments or making difficult decisions. A structured model that can help you is the Situational Leadership model, which can offer some guidance on what leadership style to adapt with people in specific tasks.
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