Authenticity is still in vogue it seems but continues to mean different things to different commentators and organisations.

Herminia Ibarra is the Cora chaired Professor of leadership and learning and Professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. She wrote an article entitled ‘The Authenticity Paradox’ published in HBR’s new book ’10 must reads for new managers’.

Ibarra suggests that being authentic is not about being your one true self. I was intrigued. My personal definition of authenticity is ‘to act in a manner consistent and congruent with one’s thoughts, values and beliefs.’ So what does Ibarra say it is about?

She believes that it’s meaning has become too defined by American culture and models of leadership. For example, today’s authentic leader is seen to be required to bring a hefty dollop of self-disclosure into their leadership practice. This, Ibarra suggests, makes life more challenging for leaders from cultures with different norms for authority and communication from those of Americans.

This view seems to me to create another paradox all of its own. The moment I choose to conform to another’s way of being or doing things, surely I am not being authentic – unless I have made a conscious choice to conform because I truly think and believe it is the right thing for me to do?

Let’s assume that I have decided that I want to work for and succeed in an American organisation in which I am expected to behave in ways contrary to my cultural norms. Let’s assume that the organisation insists that I conform to American interpretations of what it means to be authentic. Presuming I am of sane mind, surely I am therefore choosing to accept these expectations because I believe and think that conforming is the right thing to do for me and if I believe that conforming is the right thing to do for me, even if that makes my life difficult, does that choice not reflect my true self? If I think it is the wrong thing to do to conform and make my life more difficult, the question to be reasonably asked of me would be why am I doing it?

Quoted in the CIPD’s spring edition of Work magazine, Ibarra says that we should take what we learn from other’s leadership styles and make these our own. She also says that our leadership identity should change each time we find ourselves in different circumstances and faced with different challenges.


Let’s take Goleman’s 6 leadership styles for a moment: Visionary, Commanding, Democratic, Pace setting, Affiliative and Coaching. I agree that good leaders can bring to bear the skills required by these styles into any given circumstance requiring that style to get the best result. But something worries me about what Ibarra seems to be suggesting.

I am not convinced by the idea that a leader deciding this week to be a Pace Setter and next week exploring being Democratic is going to attract too many followers – especially if the leader is not acting in these ways because the task in hand requires such a shift but because they are experimenting with their own learning and development. I am not sure as a team member, I would actually want to be the subject of my boss’s leadership experiments. By my definition, to be authentic, I’d much prefer my leader to carry on being their true self and explain to me the need to operate using different leadership skills to fit the task in hand.

Anything that encourages the suppression of one’s true nature seems to me like a retrograde step in anyone’s development and is just one step away from repression – and a repressed leader is a dangerous beast.

Another take on the subject of authenticity, this time organisational authenticity, comes also this month from Matthew Jeffery. Jeffery is VP and global head of employment brand and sourcing at SAP, the enterprise application software firm. He has supported SAP in its endeavour to bring about something I’ve been advocating to HR and L and D professionals for twenty years: reshaping the brand to be an authentic representation of its employees. This is in contrast to how most organisations seem to want to create their brands – through, as Jeffery puts it, ‘marketing led spin’. An organisation’s brand, ultimately, will always mirror the behaviours, beliefs, values and attitudes of its employees. Trying to make it work the other way around is like planting a beautiful rose on stony ground and expecting the plant to turn the ground beneath it into rich, mineral-laden soil. And yet that is what so many organisations do: pick and choose the values which seem most acceptable, pay lots of money to have them etched into the glass of the doors and windows of the building and then, at best, fail to notice and, at worst, overlook the incongruence between the stated values and the actions of employees.

Hats off to SAP, I say, who have seen their Glassdoor rating improve from 3.7 in 2015 to 4.2 in 2016. May many organisations authentically follow suit.