Herminia Ibarra: ‘Authenticity’ not always positive for leaders

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An obsession with authenticity can prevent people growing into leadership roles, says leading thinker

Being overly obsessed with authenticity can have a negative impact on people transitioning into leadership roles, according to Herminia Ibarra, Cora Chaired professor of leadership and learning and professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD.

Ibarra, who is ranked sixth on the HR Most Influential Thinkers ranking 2015, was giving the closing keynote at the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester. She covered the lessons from her recent book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader.

“I have nothing against authenticity, but the process isn't always that great,” she said. “Leadership transitions often make people feel inauthentic; that they have to choose between being effective and being themselves.

“But is your definition of authentic ‘being as I always am’? Why can’t it be ‘being the person who I might become’? Are you being authentic or rigid? Authenticity taken to the extreme is rigidity and lack of learning. We should grow and develop.”

She added there are “chameleon leaders” who adapt easily to suit the situation they are in, and “true-to-selfers” who can obsess over remaining ‘authentic’ to their idea of who they are. “The only way to address [the true-to-selfers] is to ask them to think: ‘How can I be more playful?’” she said. “Give it a try. Experiment outside your comfort zone. Find role models and steal like an artist."

Ibarra’s work focuses on the need for people to ‘act’ their way into leadership roles, rather than trying to ‘think’ their way into stretching roles. In learning to act like a leader, she advised delegates to consider three areas: redesigning your job, expanding your network, and becoming more playful with your sense of self.

On redesigning your job she warned against falling into “competency traps” – where you become so good at something you find it hard to delegate or look outside your day-to-day role.

“Are you a hub or a bridge?” she asked. “Hubs have to be the centre of action while bridges connect, offer support and export ideas. Bridge-led teams have better outcomes as bridge leaders are out there seeing things and having conversations. We [HR and L&D professionals] often don’t help people to figure out what tasks they can do to start shifting from a hub to a bridge.”

She also urged HR professionals to focus on their networks, saying the most effective networks have “breadth, connectivity and dynamism”.

“Make an effort to broaden your networks,” she said. “Find strength in your weak ties. Is your network growing with you or is it stuck in the past?”

Read HR magazine’s interview with Herminia Ibarra.

Read Ibarra’s exclusive article on how HR professionals should rethink leadership development.

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