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Hit The Ground Running

Why "Being Authentic" Is Holding You Back

Your "authentic self" may be just an excuse to stay in your comfort zone. Here's how your leadership style might be getting in the way of success.

[Photo: Flickr user Lorenzo Basile Photography]

Many young people are advised at some point in their lives to figure out what you want to be, then go be it. After years of hearing the same advice, you’ve probably managed to imagine your future self—what kind of job you will have, what kind of leader you will be—and now you’re working backwards to get that coveted life you’ve been dreaming of for so long.

Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, here’s another piece of advice: forget what you think you know about who you are. This kind of thinking will professionally trap you, says Herminia Ibarra, an expert in leadership and professor at international business school INSEAD.

"You don’t really know what you need to do to lead if you haven’t done it," she tells Fast Company. "I think people get too caught up and fixated on what’s their ideal self and what they want to work toward when they should just say, ‘Here are a couple of situations where I would like to be more effective, how can I start there and work around the edges of that?"

According to Ibarra, author of the upcoming book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, as you take on more responsibilities, you are encouraged to be authentic and true, but this can be tricky if your future self is yet to be formed. Below, she shares the advice she gives managers and executives on allowing your leadership style to evolve and discovering your future authentic self.

Seriously, stop trying to define yourself

When you try hard to stay true to who you are—especially as a leader—Ibarra says you end up focusing your time and energy on what you know really well and you get into this "authenticity trap," which stops you from evolving.

"I work with a lot with leaders who are making transitions into situations that make them feel uncomfortable and unnatural," she says. "We’re oftentimes falling back on authenticity as a way to stay inside our comfort zone." This mindset eventually becomes a deterrent because you end up working in the same way years after years. If you say you’re a specific kind of person, you’re excusing yourself from acting or seeing the views from opposing sides.

"Psychologist who study the self will tell you there is no one self. We are multiples. We are many selves and those selves have different selves. They can be selves based on the different roles that we play: ‘I’m a teacher. I’m a mother. I’m a colleague.’ For a lot of people, self is formative experiences. The things that have shaped you. But it could also be what I do and who I am today," she explains.

"We have many selves, many roles, and many possibilities and some people’s different selves are more loosely tied together than others. For some people, the notion of authenticity has to do with what’s at the core," continues Ibarra. "For some people, the core is something abstract and has maybe something to do with moral principles. For other people, the core is something that can be really quite huge and can include things like how I dress, how I walk, and how I talk."

Whatever your definition of self is, the mistake is to define it. How can you be true to your authentic self if you aren’t giving yourself a real chance to grow and evolve into your true aspirations? When you think about staying true to yourself, you have to ask, which self?

But people get caught up with self-analysis because to be a healthy, happy person, you need to practice some form of introspection. The problem is, if you’re constantly
analyzing your emotional and mental processes—especially when you’re moving into a new professional position or an unfamiliar role—introspection becomes a bad thing. In her book, Ibarra writes that 50% of the managers she surveyed admits that their leadership style sometimes get in the way of their successes.

"A lot of time, introspecting is just keeping you in paralysis and analysis," she tells Fast Company. "A lot of times what happens with introspection is people get very fixed and they get very ‘I’m good at this, I’m not good at that’ and not having giving it a try at all."

Instead, the professor suggests being "more playful" about who you are. "You don’t have to commit to being an extrovert or being great at first impressions," she explains, and you should be OK with doing things in a different way than you normally would—especially when leading.

"You’re not going to get a different result by doing the same old thing over and over again … that was Einstein’s definition of insanity," she says.

Change from the outside, in—not from the inside, out

According to Ibarra, what you learn from the outside is a lot more valuable than what you learn from the inside. Only through outsight—external perspectives gained from direct experiences and experimentations—can you evolve in the way the best leaders do. It’ll help you discover what other people are thinking, where you should spend the most time, what kind of relationships matter most to you, and eventually, become more self-aware as a purpose-driven, authentic leader.

To become this type of leader, Ibarra advises throwing yourself into new territories, interacting with different kinds of people, and experimenting with new ways of getting things done. These challenges will break down the habitual ways that limit your possibilities. Do all of these things before you feel ready. You’ll feel inauthentic and like an imposter at first, but you will eventually change how you see yourself. Your evolution will come from your relationship with other people, which "internalizes your leadership identity," according to psychologists.

"Really look around at other people, especially if you find people that you respect or admire and watch them … a lot of times, it’s about forcing yourself to do stuff that doesn’t come naturally," she says.

Ibarra writes in her book:

"Our mind-sets are very difficult to change because changing requires experience in what we are least apt to do. Without the benefit of an outside-in approach to change, our self-conceptions and therefore our habitual patterns of thought and action are rigidly fenced in by the past. No one pigeonholes us better than we ourselves do. The paradox of change is that the only way to alter the way we think is by doing the very things our habitual thinking keeps us from doing."

Furthermore, one of the biggest mistakes people make that stops them from growing is having an "inbred" network, says Ibarra. The only way you can think more strategically and cross-functionally is through the different relationships you have with different people.

"[People] talk to and hang out with the same people, the same usual suspects and usually, it’s the people who share the same points of view, the same interests, the same kind of ideas," she explains. "[People] are very much sheltered from other ways of thinking. It keeps you from growing because one of the biggest influences on your growth is your network, different communities from which you belong, the different kinds of people you exchange and do things … that’s a huge influence on who you become."

Sure, sometimes people know exactly who they want to be, but if you want to lead at a higher level and evolve to your best potential, then you won’t know who that future person will be in advance. To find that person, you need to let go.

The best leaders are those who will admit that they don’t know yet how to fulfill the role they’re in, so they explore and experiment and are okay with tweaking and reiterating. That’s the secret to discovering your true, authentic future self.