Can you be too authentic?


Published on: March 2020

Written by: Laura Fay

Authenticity is a quality that the best leaders have learned to value and demonstrate.

Sharing life stories and using real human language can help executives connect with their employees, their clients, their Board members, any stakeholder – in a way that feels personal and real. Even more importantly, as our research has shown, authenticity is not just a “nice to have” for today’s leaders: it is a business imperative. We uncovered that authenticity is one of the five leadership qualities that statistically differentiate leaders of high-growth companies. Further, our research on Millennials shows that for this influential and critical cohort, authenticity is the most important quality for leaders to have. If you want to lead and inspire the workforce of the future, authentic leadership must pave the way.

But what happens when a leader blurs the line between authenticity and oversharing?

I remember a particularly precarious time during which a large financial institution I worked for was rumored to be on the chopping block. Stories were swirling in the media about potential buyers, and employees were rattled. They needed reassurance, and they needed a steady hand with leadership. As I coached the CEO on an upcoming call with employees, we talked through what information he was able to share and what his audience needed to hear.

We agreed that there were limitations due to legal and regulatory circumstances, but that he could be upbeat and positive, commit to future updates, and help settle the organization until the path forward was clear.

Imagine my surprise when he kicked off the call and went down a totally different path… one that included speculation about possible company spin-offs, and a relatively negative slant on prospective buyers. The end result was a lot of shaken employees, unsure about their future employment.

When I asked the leader why he had gone forward with that approach, his comment was “I wanted to be transparent. I didn’t want to be scripted. I felt they deserved to hear what was happening in my own thoughts. I needed to be true to myself.”

While his decision came from a place of good intent, we had what HBR refers to as the “authenticity paradox.” A genuine desire to be candid can often be seen as “freewheeling,” the last thing a team needs during times of change. Rather, leaders need to find a way to balance authority with approachability.

Here are 4 ways a leader can do that:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. In times of peak stress or time constraints, it’s tempting to skip over really thoughtful preparation. In this case, the leader felt that “preparation” translated to being scripted, and that didn’t feel true to his leadership style. It’s important to write down key messages in language that you’d actually use – phrases and words, not full sentences. And then practice, practice, practice until it doesn’t just feel natural – but it IS natural.
  • Think about your audience agenda. You’re likely speaking to a broad base of stakeholders, some who are new to change, and some who have lived through it too many times to be rattled. While it’s important to consider your entire audience, particularly think about folks who will likely be most impacted by the potential change – emotionally or professionally. Those who might not have experience and context to settle their nerves… and put yourself in their shoes. Speak to them directly.
  • Share your own experience. If you’re in a position where you’re leading such a conversation, it’s likely not your first rodeo. Perhaps you sat in their shoes in the early stages of your own career. Think about what that situation was, how it made you feel, what you needed to hear, and then share it. Personalizing your comments with your own experience expresses empathy and understanding – which will likely have more impact than glazing over details you don’t have.
  • Appreciate your multiple “selves.” For most of us, there are different dimensions to how we present ourselves based on circumstances. Who you are at home may be different than who you are at work. This doesn’t mean you aren’t authentic at work, it just means you need to bring a different type of authenticity into that environment. Embrace this and be open to continually redefining who your “true self” is as a leader. As one leadership specialist shares, “As leaders, we do not just need a clear sense of who we are (our essential selves) – we must also be willing to change our leadership identity (our constructed selves) each time we move on to bigger and better things.”
Today’s business climate is one of disruption and turmoil. It is critical for senior leaders to be able to stabilize, focus, and inspire the troops in order to deliver on business strategy and create sustainable growth. Your ability to do this effectively rests on your capacity to tap into the power of your authentic self, while balancing your charter to help the enterprise stay the course. Take the time to be mindful about how you communicate and share, and you’ll show up as that authentic, inspiring leader you want to be.

Ready to start a conversation?

Want to know how BTS can help your business? Fill out the form below, and someone from our team will follow up with you.