Be Authentic, but Not Too Authentic

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about managing paradox – concepts that are seemingly at odds with each another. Last month I posted a blog on the topic, making the case that many of the paradoxes leaders are faced with are actually false paradoxes.
Which brings me to authenticity. Today we want our leaders to be authentic, to be real. No corporate-speak, no false promises, no covering up the truth. And why not? How can we possibly respect and trust a leader who is deceitful?
But does this mean leaders should be open and candid about everything all of the time? Should a leader express fear about losing his job? Should a leader, coaching an employee, convey that she has little confidence in that employee? Does “authenticity” mean undiscerning transparency?
Should a leader hurl insults if that behavior feels “authentic”? Throw a tantrum? Does the claim of “authenticity” – of just “being yourself” – justify anything that is said or done?
Of course not.
Authenticity doesn’t mean undiscerning transparency and it doesn’t justify any and every behavior. So how can a leader be both authentic and discreet, authentic and civil?
Values and behaviors play out in a context. Yes, a leader should be open and candid but depending on the context candor may do more harm than good. Yes, a leader should be willing to show emotion but depending on the context emotional restraint might be an appropriate response.
Being discreet and civil doesn’t make you inauthentic. It means you’re sensitive to others and are exercising good judgment. And being authentic doesn’t give you license to say or do whatever, whenever, regardless of how insensitive it is.
Yes, be authentic, but also be sensitive to the context of the situation.
It’s like when your grandmother asks what you think of her new – and very ugly – sweater. “Grandmother,” you happily reply, “it looks lovely.”
Make it happen.

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