Authenticity continues to be a hot leadership topic and continues to mean different things to different people. We are encouraged to be open, transparent, and vulnerable; but too much transparency may erode confidence in a leader or disengage a team. We strive to be true to real selves, and yet still must hit demanding quarterly targets. How can we put authentic leadership into practice?
Karissa Thacker is a psychologist and founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions, a management training and coaching firm. She's often quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company and many other major outlets. Her new book is The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self.
I recently interviewed Dr. Thacker for the LEADx Leadership Show, where we discussed what true authenticity means in leadership. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Why is authentic leadership so critical these days?
Dr. Karissa Thacker: You can do nothing alone in the workplace today. Individual contributor jobs do exist, but for the most part, I think all of us are working in teams, and performance demands are extreme. The force—the authentic leadership—is about pulling people together in terms of connection, and when we pull people together and they experience positive emotions like meaningful work, connecting with another person that is like-minded, and having a shared vision, we are able to accomplish extraordinary things.
You always know that you're in the presence of authentic leadership when something extraordinary is happening, and it doesn't mean that the quarterlies are great every quarter, but what it means is that you've got people focused on doing something extraordinary and they start to feel that they can do it, and it's not just about being connected to that leader. It's about being connected to the rest of the team and being connected to the people that you work within a different, a deeper way.
Kruse: What's the big idea of your book, The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become an Authentic Leader and Your Best Self?
Dr. Thacker: The big idea of the book is that we tend to think of authenticity as being true to yourself; in the book, I make the case that in authentic leadership, in particular, we need to be true to our best self, our ideal self. The ideal self is a concept in psychology that has a deep and rich history. It is actually an aspect of personality that is both conscious and unconscious. What it really means is that all of us have a sense of what it means to be good. All of us have a sense of who we are at our best, but it's kind of semi-conscious sometimes. We kind of know when we hit it. We're kind of wandering around in the dark.
What I would like people to do after they read The Art of Authenticity is get crystal clear about who that ideal self is, and it's not fixed. You need to change it and update it and adapt it, but when you become crystal clear about that, that does become a force for shaping your behavior. It's kind of like Star Wars. “May the force be with you.” And that ideal self is a force in our personality if we can become skillful at using it.
Kruse: Some criticize being “authentic” at work as just a form of TMI—too much information.
Dr. Thacker: Transparency is a tricky, tricky issue. Some of us tend to armor up and not disclose much at all and end up being more distant in the workplace. Some of us tend to open up too much. Too much of either one does not promote the most effective relationships, so the third way is to “Wise up.” What I mean by that is to choose, based on the situation, what makes the most sense.
You know, you've got a team that's derailing and in crisis mode. The fact that you didn't sleep last night is not very relevant to the rest of the people. Authentic leadership happens in a relationship, and all of us have to negotiate when we need to armor up and be a little more distant and get things done, and when we can open up.
I talk in the book about what I call proactive transparency, and that sets you up for times when you can't share everything because you've been so open about who you are in terms of how you came to be who you are, who've been honest about your failures, for example, and people have a sense of who you are at a deeper level. That's proactive transparency.
Dr. Thacker offers a clear path to replacing habitual and emotional reactions with mindful and conscious decisions. Authentic leadership, modulated based on the situation, can lead to both deeper relationships and better business outcomes.