Feeling Like a Fake? Maybe That’s a Good Thing.
The Authenticity Paradox
I recently came across an article called “The Authenticity Paradox” (Harvard Business Review) that threw me back headfirst to my own early struggles with leadership.
Not long ago, I thought I totally knew what I was doing.
I was the president of a small company. I’d been doing the work for 20 years and felt like I’d mastered it. I was comfortable (and even a little bored), because although I liked my job, I found myself wanting a bigger challenge.
Man did I get it …
One day, I literally woke up a president and came back from lunch a CEO.
No warning. No planning. No nothing. Boom, I was there.
Suddenly I had to complete a gazillion different tasks that depended on skills I hadn’t yet developed — all while a bunch of expectant faces looked at me and wondered (I assumed) why I wasn’t doing a better job of it.
The mantra in my head was the old Dry Idea antiperspirant slogan from the ‘80s: “Never let ‘em see you sweat.”
I probably earned a “C” on that front, because I felt like people on the street could see that my mind was on fire.
There was so much to this new phase of leadership I hadn’t done yet or flat out didn’t know — like how to be “tough.” Hey, I’m not hardball kind of person. I want people to like me. I meditate and do yoga, and I’m all about empowerment and making people feel valued. Now I have to be the hammer?
All I could think was, that’s not authentic to who I am!
And that’s where the article hits home. After studying leadership transitions, author Herminia Ibarra came to this important conclusion:
“Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable. But few jobs allow us to do that for long. That’s doubly true when we advance in our careers or when demands or expectations change.”
In other words, when you’re new to a leadership role, you want nothing more than to cling to something you know you’re good at.
You justify that retreat as “authenticity.” And this is the kiss of death. Because if you continually return to your comfort zone, you never get anywhere.
I thought my only choices were to be inauthentic or become someone I don’t like, but that wasn’t the case. Ms. Ibarra’s point is, “Don’t mistake a refusal to change for authenticity.”
While I faked my new CEO role, I was actually learning how to be a CEO (secret: I Googled it). I made mistakes. I acknowledged them at the appropriate time (after the fact) to the appropriate people (sometimes just me). And — most importantly — I used a core value of mine (learning) to be truly “authentic” while also learning new skills to become a leader.
Growth is difficult, but is there anything valuable in life that isn’t?
As you move toward positions of greater leadership, don’t trap yourself in the past. The key is to see leadership with curiosity, not judgment. Instead of thinking, “I’m not cut out to lead,” ask yourself, “I wonder what kind of leader I’ll be?” and commit to exploring it. You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
About the Author: Tanya Korpi Macleod is the founder of Minneapolis-based Macleod & Co. After more than 25 years of marketing and advertising experience in the U.S. and Europe, Tanya noticed that chasm that often exists between an organization’s theoretical marketing “plan” and its realistic ability to execute it. This led her to pioneer in the concept of “holistic marketing,” which redefines marketing as the complete process of bringing a product, service or company from inception to maximum ongoing profitability. Her mission is to show organizational leaders that a holistic mindset not only promotes a healthier culture, but a more profitable business.