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What Is True Authentic Leadership?

02/18/2015 03:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015

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The February cover story of Harvard Business Review, "The Authenticity Paradox," by Professor Herminia Ibarra, eloquently described how authenticity can actually inhibit our ability to evolve, to expand beyond our comfort zone and, ultimately, to adapt to new challenges. While companies have encouraged leaders to discover and promote their "true-self" as a way to restore trust in management and to increase employee engagement, Herminia proposes leaders empirically try multiple versions of their "self" to help define an "adaptive self" that can evolve according to new challenges.

This concept of multiple "selves" is actually the foundation of the Tanya, the main work of the Chabad philosophy, which claims that every human being has two selves: a higher self and a lower self. Most of our daily behavior is driven by our lower self, which focuses on ego and the need to survive. Through the prism of my selfish lower self, the outside world revolves around me. The world has one sole purpose: supply my needs. Therefore, my main goal in every new situation is to understand "what's in it for me."

However, deep inside each of us is a higher self, which actually focuses on others. This selfless self thrives on giving rather than getting. Our higher self aspires to collaborate and create without worrying about the immediate benefits. Through the prism of my selfless higher self, my main aspiration is to make the world around me a better place. The way to feel good is to make good things happen for others.

When it comes to authenticity in leadership, the question becomes which "self" do I need to be true? My lower self or my higher self? Let's examine a few examples Herminia provided.

Herminia describes how Cynthia, a newly promoted general manager in a health care organization, lost credibility when she expressed her fears about the new job to her team: "I want to do this job," she said, "but it's scary, and I need your help."

Was Cynthia authentic by being transparent with her new reports? Some might certainly think so.
I would argue that it was not. Cynthia was driven by her selfish lower self. She felt like she was in danger and out of her comfort zone. She focused on her own fears and needs rather than the needs of others -- she was not authentic to her higher self. An authentic behavior does not automatically mean transparency, at least not when transparency becomes the natural expression of a self-centric ("I want to do this job"), protective move ("but it's scary").

In Cynthia's case, authenticity would have meant looking at the new challenge as an opportunity to positively impact the organization. If she had acted as an authentic leader, she would have overcome her lower self and her immediate need to express fear. By doing so, she would have enabled her higher self to prevail and to focus on the bigger picture. Her comments would have expressed the need for her team to tackle the task together. Creating a sense of shared responsibility with her team would also have helped her overcome her natural fear.

Another example is Anne, a senior manager at a transportation company. She refused to elevate her pitch and talk about the vision. Instead, she focused solely on actual results, claiming that being concrete and data-driven was more authentic than trying to convince the Board through an inspiring pitch.

Was Anne right to feel that focusing on vision rather than results was not authentic? If we define authenticity by adhering to our higher self, no. Authenticity is not a vague feeling about what best matches our core values, but rather a cognitive assessment of the situation and how behavior can impact the results. Anne may dislike talking about vision, but if her goal is to have a positive impact then convincing the Board is part of that task. She should have used her talent to achieve that goal. In this situation, an authentic leader would work hard to build a presentation that adopts the Board language while maintaining the factual foundation of data and analysis.

Authentic leadership is actually hard work. It requires a constant awareness that our very existence is limited in time and space as human beings. To have a lasting impact, authentic leaders first need to reject the wired automatism of defensive behaviors, which are rooted in the lower self. The next step is to determine the practical options and how to make the best out of the current situation for the others involved - be it a team, department or organization as a whole. When the higher self leads, defining a behavioral path that will be driven by the broader organization's shared interests takes priority.

That's the journey of authentic leadership. Let's embrace it.