'Be who you are'... the myth of Authentic Leadership
At one very low point of my own personal journey of leadership development, I remember sobbing over and over again... "I just want to be me". But it wasn't that simple and here's why... At the same time as crying those words out, I also knew deep down that I was becoming more than I had been. I'd just never expected that letting go of my identity of 'who I was' in order to allow the more expansive and refreshed version of me would be so challenging!
And it's also why I get a bit wound up when the following couple of expressions are used:
'be who you are'
'be your best'
Yes, of course we want people to not mask what is going on for them, or to feel that they have to adapt so much that they feel constricted and it impacts their performance and well-being. I agree it's unhealthy and unproductive to be who others want or expect you to be.
But when it comes to Leadership, and being Authentic, it is a contradiction of Leadership to simply be 'who you are'. It strips away a key capability of Leadership which is to evolve, to change, to embrace flexibility, to be adaptable. Leadership is not just to turn this capability outwards towards your work; it is to turn it inwards on yourself. To know that you are never finished, to believe that there is always more you can learn from those around you and the ever-changing context of work. So instead, I believe we should be talking about:
'be all you can be'
'be all the world needs you to be'
To explain this a bit further, I'm going to use a framework of development from Kegan and Lahey's Immunity to Change (2009). They talk about 3 levels of development:
The socialised mind - at this level, we align our worlds to support our identity. So you might see someone who gravitates towards others who are well organised because they know it suits them better and helps them work. At this stage, we may not be aware of our own preferences and biases, instead, seeking out experiences which seem to 'fit' better. We can have a tendency to criticise or make judgements of those which don't. I may not know who I am or how to be my best!
The self-authoring mind - at this next level, we make choices which re-inforce our belief systems. There is an awareness of what works for us and what doesn't. For example: I know I like things to be efficiently ordered and for my time to be chunked, so I set up my team to work in a way that suits me. I am an 'organised' Leader and the constant re-iteration of organising life around me, adds strength, but also rigidity to the construct. It means that I become attached to my belief that being organised is 'better' and 'who I am as a leader'. It becomes part of my identity. In this space, I am sure of who I am and how to set it up for me to be my best.
The self-transforming mind - at this third level, we have an awareness of the responsibility to step back, see the limits of one's own ideology (belief system) & invite in other's thinking, perspectives, beliefs before acting. We know that how we see, experience and make meaning of the world is only one way. That our preferences which support our functionality in the world may be defence mechanisms which keep us safe and also, at the same time, may limit our potential. We know our limitations and strive to expand our impact by being open to our own transformation, rather than expecting it in others.
So in summary
My concern is that if Authentic Leadership is only about being 'who you are' then we're not evolving into the collective leadership practices which are needed to creatively and fluidly work with the world's problems and individuals of today. We're limiting leadership and not harnessing our true potential. Darwin often gets mis-understood as 'the survival of the fittest'; when in fact, his work helps us to understand that flexing and adapting to the changing situation is key to survival. It is to continue to evolve.
To help clients make the shifts up the 3 levels of leadership development, I've chosen to complement my coaching with iEQ9 Enneagram. The approach involves a questionnaire of choices, in which what you pick reveals:
underlying motivations which sit beneath actions
how you make sense of the world
how others may make sense of you
your unique virtues and challenges
blind spots, defence mechanisms
And most importantly, it opens up development pathways which recognise that your essential self is your unique place to build from. It supports both bringing balance, plus an expanded repertoire of being; suggestions for release from stress and how to stretch and challenge yourself away from instinctive defence patterns. It helps you step towards a 'self-transforming' mind.
So don't get stuck in a leadership place of 'be all you are'; instead take the steps towards 'being all you can be'! Develop your capacity to let go of defence mechanisms and belief systems which protect you. Uncover your essential, true and powerful self to bring change to the world.
And one first step, might be to find out more from me about the iEQ9 Enneagram approach and how I work with this at a deep and transformational level to support your Authentic Leadership.
All the best