Between our coaching calls, Naveen, an Indian vice president of a technology company based in Bangalore, diligently read the handful of articles I had asked him to look over. In our next call, he seemed perplexed by the term “authentic leadership” that he had seen in a couple of the readings. What does it mean to be an authentic leader, he asked me. He had looked up the dictionary definition of authentic and its synonyms, which included genuine, real, not a fake. Well and good, he agreed. But he seemed a bit confused. To be genuine and real with your team, how much do you have to “self-disclose” by letting them know about your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes? And does being genuine and real imply behaving and only using a leadership style that comes naturally to you?
Take a recent article by Goffee and Jones in Harvard Business Review. In that piece, they write that one of the qualities of inspirational leaders is that they reveal their weaknesses. “When leaders reveal their weaknesses, they show us who they are – warts and all. This may mean they’re irritable on Monday mornings, that they are somewhat disorganized, or even rather shy. Such admissions work because people need to see leaders own up to some flaw before they participate willingly in an endeavor. Exposing a weakness establishes trust and thus helps get folks on board.”
Part of Naveen’s discomfort was a particular concern about the cultural appropriateness of such self-disclosure, especially in countries where the expectations of what an effective leader is may not tolerate such complete transparency, at least initially. In fact, a couple of more recent articles in Harvard Business Review suggest such caution in this regard. For example, Rosh and Offerman urge leaders to understand the organizational and cultural context before they self-disclose. Similarly, Ibarra writes that many models of authentic leadership are particularly American, especially in the advice to tell a personal story about a hardship they have overcome. He points out that these are based on Western ideals of individualistic triumph over adversity.
In a recent study, two researchers examined how different cultures perceive “authenticity” in others based on their self-expression. The countries representing these cultures, Germany and China, are on different ends of the spectrum in terms of their individualistic and collectivistic orientation. An important facet of collectivism is contextualism, the extent to which the context is crucial in understanding other people. Easterners more than Westerners tend to consider the context when explaining behavior. On the other hand, in individualistic cultures such as Germany, dispositional information, such as the person’s personal preferences, is more important. Therefore, according to these researchers, a person expressing both his likes and dislikes will be perceived to be more authentic by Westerners. They predicted that Germans learning about a person who expresses only his likes (culture-incongruent) would seek more dispositional information (culture-congruent), whereas Chinese learning about a person expressing both likes and likes (culture-incongruent) would seek more contextual information (culture-congruent) to better understand this person. Their sample consisted of 73 German students and 87 Chinese students in universities in Germany and China who were randomly assigned to two scenarios. In one scenario, they read about the likes and dislikes of a certain person named George (in Germany) or Yong (in China). In the other scenario, they read about his likes only.
The participants were then asked how much each of 12 statements described George (or Yong). These statements were based on a scale of authenticity developed by other researchers.
A sample item was the following: George is true to himself in most situations. Finally, participants were asked how useful they would find each one of six additional pieces of information to get to know George better.
What did they find? In brief, the Germans found the person expressing both likes and dislikes to be more authentic than the person expressing only likes, whereas the opposite was true for the Chinese. They also validated their prediction: that Germans reading about a person expressing only his likes (culture-incongruent) would seek more dispositional information (culture-congruent), whereas Chinese reading about a person expressing both likes and likes (culture-incongruent) would seek more contextual information (culture-congruent) to better understand this person. The Chinese rated contextual information as more helpful to better understand a person expressing likes and dislikes than a person expressing only likes
So in answer to the first of Naveen’s questions, the choice for a leader is not necessarily whether or not to self-disclose, but how much. Authentic leadership, as one of its pioneers Bill George has stated, is about practicing your values and principles. It’s also about being honest. In their surveys of over 75,000 leaders globally, Kouzes and Posner have pointed out that honesty is one of the four characteristics of admired leaders selected by their respondents in over 50 countries: “We simply don’t trust people who can’t or won’t disclose a clear set of values, ethics and standards and live by them.”
I propose the following principles for leader self-disclosure. The first principle is to inform honestly. Whether you are talking about your accomplishments or your failures, embellishing them with exaggerations or half-truths will not work in the long term. We have all read about leaders who have padded their resumes or told stories about their past that, with a bit of fact-checking, turned out to be distorted. This does not mean that you cannot tell a good story about your past or frame your experience in a way that helps you send a clear message to your team. Just don’t play fast and loose with your facts.
A second principle is to consider organizational and cultural norms in selecting what to disclose. Pay attention to these norms and make sure you do not violate them for they can quickly undermine your effectiveness as a leader. The research study cited above is simply one example of how different cultures react to what they perceive to be authentic behavior. I know of several organizations with very formal cultures – where employees dress very conservatively, managers and executives are addressed with their last names, and where meetings are run following strict guidelines. As a new leader coming into such an organization, you may think that behaving this way is not being authentic, but behaving counter-culturally, at least initially, will not make you an effective leader.
A third principle is to consider your audience and, specifically, the relationship you have with your team and colleagues. Imagine calling a meeting with your new team, most of whom have been with the company for a while, and confessing to them your skepticism at the extent to which people who have been in their jobs for a long time can adapt to change. This is what happened to Marty, an executive from outside the company who was brought from the outside to head a business unit that had seen its profits and market share shrink. He had a hard time recovering from his misguided attempt at being authentic.
These principles should address Naveen’s two questions above. Fundamentally, authentic leadership starts with having a deep understanding of yourself and how people perceive you. Bill George and others written about the importance of self-awareness, and the challenges of arriving at this self-knowledge. However, knowing your reputation, what others think about you, is also important. You may believe that you are being genuine, that you are acting as an authentic leader, but if others do not perceive you that way, then there is a gap that you will need to address, and not simply dismiss it by saying, “I don’t care what others think of me.”
George, B. et al. (2007). Discovering your authentic leadership. Harvard Business Review, February.
Goffee, and Jones, G. (2000). Why should anyone be led by you? Harvard Business Review, September-October.
Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, 93, 52-59.
Kokkoris, M. and Khunen, U. (2014). “Express the real you”: cultural differences in the perception of self-expression as authenticity. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 45(8), 1221-1228.
Kouzes, J. and Posner, B. (2007). The leadership challenge (4th edition). New York: Wiley.
Rosh, L. and Offermann, L. (2013). Be yourself, but carefully. Harvard Business Review, 91, 135-139.