How to Be a Leader Without Compromising Your Authenticity

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So many women face the challenge of being a leader without compromising their authenticity in a world that traditionally aligns leadership qualities with qualities historically associated with maleness or masculinity.

There are two articles that are important to mention. The first appeared in the Harvard Business Review back in August of 2013, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? authored by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. It is a compelling question that frankly, boils down to how we as a society have historically confused confidence for competence. Those are not adequate substitutes for capabilities, competence, the ability to get things done, to inspire, to lead, and to make good choices.


The Genius Fallacy

We live in a world that almost worships male leaders who express confidence and don’t always demonstrate competence. In fact, I think we see this playing out in lots of different arenas – including American politics right now. There’s even this term in research called the Genius Fallacy that credits men – and famous male leaders throughout history, as being geniuses for having this innate gift of leadership that is rarely afforded to women who have to prove themselves worthy for trust-building through hard work, competence, and proven past performance. This is really problematic when it comes to being a woman leader in a world that seems to worship narcissistic, hubris-fueled male leaders.

In his piece, Tomas says, “Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a leader embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders such as narcissism, psychopathy, histrionic or Machiavellian personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.” These characteristics are personality disorders, not leadership qualities to aspire to, and yet he argues in his piece that this is sort of indicative of the average normal commonplace leader, and that great leadership is much harder to find.


Enough Leaning In. Let’s Tell Men to Lean Out.

The value of competence over confidence is far too rare. He starts to argue in opposition to the whole Sheryl Sandberg argument of leaning in. In fact, he says, “It struck me as a little odd that so much of the recent debate over getting women to lean in has focused on getting them to adopt more of these dysfunctional leadership traits. Yes, these are the people we often choose as our leaders. But should they be?”

This question that he’s asking has not yet been answered. In fact, it was only last October that another related argument that was published in The New York Times by Ruth Whippman, Enough Leaning In. Let’s tell men to Lean Out. She argues directly against assertiveness as a quality to aspire to, which I know is very near and dear to my heart.

Ruth writes in her article, “So perhaps instead of nagging women to scramble to meet the male standard, we should instead be training men and boys to aspire to women’s cultural norms and selling those norms to men as both default and desirable to be more deferential, to reflect and listen and apologize where an apology is due and if unsure, to air on the side of superfluous. Sorry that an absent one to aim for modesty and humility and cooperation rather than blowhard arrogance.”

What she’s saying is instead of telling women to be more assertive and aspire to this totally dysfunctional, traditionally male narcissistic demonstration of a practice of leadership, we should be encouraging more men to aspire to deference and diplomatic, democratic leadership styles that women embrace.


Embracing Your Authenticity As a Leader

I have long been a proponent of the strategy that we should play the cards we’ve been dealt, while we change the game. It’s hard for me in good conscience to say you shouldn’t aspire to assertiveness, or you shouldn’t hone your self-confidence, or you shouldn’t be more courageous and embrace your ego on occasion when it’s due and when it makes sense. I think we’ve conditioned women and girls our entire lives to err on the side of self-doubt and underplaying our successes and being coy and too deferential.

My take on this whole thing when it comes to how you embody your own leadership style is in order for you to be authentic, we need to recognize that it’s not a binary. It is not one or the other. You are not either some overconfident, machismo, hubris filled narcissistic leader, or some super deferential, behind-the-scenes coy, demure, and apologetic lady leader.

It’s never that simple. Every good leader, in my experience, balances both the duality within themselves in their ability to be assertive, decisive, confident, and clear with the willingness to listen actively, to be deferential, to focus on competence over confidence, and acknowledge they’re not always right or perfect.

At the end of the day, embracing your authenticity as a leader means having both of these tools in your leadership toolbox and being willing to play the more assertive card when it serves your goals and your audience.


What’s your take?

I’d be curious to hear from you on this, too. I want to know, how have you struggled in the past with embracing your leadership without feeling like you’re putting on a mask or putting on armor heading into work every day?

I want to hear what you think. Share in the comments section below to tell me what your thoughts are or tag me on social media at @EmilieAries or @BossedUpOrg.


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