Why Being “True to Yourself” Can Hold You Back From Your Leadership Journey

By Aimee Hansen

“Countless books and advisers tell you to start your leadership journey with a clear sense of who you are. But that can be a recipe for staying stuck in the past. Your leadership identity can and should change each time you move on to bigger and better things,” says Herminia Ibarra, professor of Leadership and Learning at INSEAD.

In an article entitled “The Authenticity Paradox” in Harvard Business Review’s January 2015 issue, Ibarra challenges the predominant views and momentum on authenticity to assert that “true to self” approaches can hinder leadership growth. She argues “a too rigid definition of authenticity can get in the way of effective leadership,” often keeping leaders from evolving as they gain new insight and experience.

“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,” she explains. “In my research on leadership transitions, I have observed that career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities.”

Misunderstanding the Leadership Journey

How did we all come to revere “true to self” approaches? In her book ACT LIKE A LEADER, THINK LIKE A LEADER, Ibarra states the “holy grail of leadership development” that says you must navigate your way to leadership from a clear inner compass of who you are (inside-out development) is a fallacy derived from a research tradition of profiling highly effective leaders NOT the journey they took to get there. Ibarra’s research on the “development of leader identity” suggests that people become a leader by acting like a leader, which necessitates acting outside of your self-perceived identity rather than within it.

According to what she calls the out-sight principle, when it comes to leadership, what we do changes how we think, what we value, and who we see ourselves as – not the other way around. She writes, “Simply put, change happens from the outside in, not from the inside out.”

The Danger of Staying “True to Self” for Women

Ibarra spoke to us about how latching onto authenticity plays out for women. “The more common trap I see women falling into is not acting like a man but sticking too long to an authentic but outdated way of leading.”

She shared a scenario of role-transition in which both men and women were clearly out of their depths. “Women were more likely to try to prove their competence by demonstrating technical mastery over the long term; while men are more intent on making a positive first impression to create relationships.”

She explains how latching onto authenticity back-fired, “The women cited their reliance on ‘substance rather than form’ as a more ‘authentic’ strategy and thus as a source of pride; yet they were also frustrated with their inability to win their superiors’ and clients’ recognition.” She observed, “Despite the value they placed on authenticity, their cautious and protective behavior wasn’t necessarily true to self either, and they had a harder time enlisting others’ support because they were perceived as less adaptive and flexible than their male peers.”

Ibarra strongly emphasizes however “the divergent strategies of men and women are not due to issues of confidence or personality, i.e. women being more cautious, prudent or less risk taking and bold than men. What explains women’s heightened authenticity concerns is ‘second generation bias,’ defined as the powerful yet often invisible barriers to women’s advancement that arise from cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men and accumulate to interfere with a woman’s ability to see herself and be seen by others as a leader.”

The antidote to that self-perception gap, of course, is leading. INSEAD research has shown that the more leadership experience women have, the less identity conflict they experience as a woman and a leader.

The authenticity paradox is especially acute for women in male-dominated companies. Ibarra told us, “Stepping up to leadership in male-dominated cultures is particularly challenging for women because they must establish credibility in cultures that equate leadership with behaviors that are more typical of men and where powerful female role models are scarce… If they ‘don’t look like a leader; to the seniors who evaluate their potential, they are less likely to get the assignments and sponsorship that are the heart of the learning cycle involved in becoming a leader.”

The Importance of Being “Adaptively Authentic”

In her HBR article, Ibarra encourages leaders to view themselves as works in progress with adaptive professional identities evolved through trial and error, acknowledging “That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.”

This takes more courage for women, because it can lead to a catch-22 as Ibarra shared with us, “When women are authentic, leading in less prototypical ways — crafting a vision collaboratively, for example, rather than boldly asserting a new direction — their contribution and potential is more likely to go unrecognized. But ‘chameleon’ strategies, that involve emulating the leadership styles of successful role models – as men are more apt to do – are less effective and less appealing to women in male-dominated leadership companies: they are evaluated negatively if they appear to be ‘acting like men’ and the styles that work for men are less likely to be a good fit for and appealing to them.”

In HBR, Ibarra proposes being “adaptively authentic”, a leadership approach that comes from embracing a playful attitude to identity rather than a protective one, a willingness to try out possible selves to figure out what’s right for new challenges.

Ibarra shared two thoughts with us for women under biased pressure to prove themselves as leaders, “First, often time you can play around with different ways of being in your side projects and extra curricular activities first, where the spotlight isn’t so bright. Second, you can’t underestimate the risk of doing just as you always have. At different points in your career you reach inflection points where the only way to ‘prove yourself’ is to just try new stuff because the old way clearly isn’t working.”

In HBR, she argues that being too internally focused can limit us, “Without the benefit of what I call out-sight — the valuable external perspective we get from experimenting with new leadership behaviors — habitual patterns of thought and action fence us in. To begin thinking like leaders, we must first act: plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with very different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done…Action changes who we are and what we believe is worth doing.”

Women and Adapting to Influence

Ibarra shared perspective on how women can influence leadership as they adapt to become better leaders, “Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the IMF) has a lovely phrase for women: she says you have to ‘dare the difference,’ meaning dare to be different, to bring to your company your unique gifts, values and perspective as a woman and an individual. I can’t agree more.”

“But,” she cautions, “that doesn’t mean you don’t adapt to essential ‘leadership demands’ to think more strategically beyond your narrow area of expertise, to develop a full arsenal for selling your ideas to the people who have to buy in to make them reality, and to stretch your style so that you can inspire and persuade a more diverse audience. Being authentic doesn’t mean you just say ‘It’s not me to go out on a limb;’ it means you experiment until you find new ways of leading that work and also feel authentic.”