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The Authenticity Paradox – can we be too authentic?

I frequently talk to coachees about finding an authentic way of acting and being. In a recent Harvard Business Review article “The Authenticity Paradox”, Herminia Ibarra raises the issue that people can be too authentic. That is, sticking to a rigid picture of self that can negatively impact leadership effectiveness, but, on the other hand, being too flexible can appear disingenuous.

Authenticity is the notion of ‘true self’, I know who I am and have a consistent way of operating. Authentic leaders develop trust through honest relationships and promote openness. However, in the HBR article Herminia states that an image of self that is rigid prevents us from experimenting and trying new approaches. She says, “Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like imposters, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable”. The article includes case study examples of problems experienced when a leader is too open and shows too much vulnerability, and also of a leader with a consistent and authentic approach that is too rigid and inflexible, leading to a career plateau.


The article combines the ideas of Mark Snyder, a psychologist from University of Minnesota, who identified two types of people:

  • ‘High self monitors’ – like chameleons, able and willing to adapt to the demands of a situation without feeling fake. They mask their vulnerability and manage their public image. They are flexible which can aid progression. However the negative of this is that others perceive chameleons as disingenuous, even though they are being true to their flexible self.
  • On the other hand there are ‘low self monitors’ or ‘true to selfers’ – expressing what they really think and feel, being honest and showing vulnerability. However, these people can stick too long to familiar behaviour that prevents them from meeting new requirements.

In essence the proposition is that as careers develop, organisation’s change. What has led to an individual’s success in the past will not necessarily be sufficient for success in the future. Change requires that we move out of our comfort zone, but if the authentic self-image is too rigid, then stagnation would occur. As a result the authentic self has to amend and change.

Herminia suggests that a self-image that is too rigid comes from too much introspection and only looking within for the answers. With limited “outsight”, habits are not amended by external influences on new ways of doing things. So there is a recommendation to learn from diverse role models, to experiment. This is not imitating or faking it, but taking effective elements from others and moulding these to become your own: “To begin thinking like leaders, we must first act; plunge ourselves into new projects and activities, interact with different kinds of people, and experiment with new ways of getting things done.”

So when working with coachees to find a sustainable effective approach, the either/or of chameleons vs true selfers is not sufficient and too simplistic. It is about an authentic self that is constantly evolving. Recognising that there is a different ‘self’ with different people and at different times. It is about finding an ‘authentic’ way to be true to self and adapt for the future. How can we be authentic chameleons? Or as Herminia Ibarra puts it ‘adaptive authenticity’ saying “The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are – doing new things that make us uncomfortable but teach us through direct experience who we want to become”.

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