Leaders are constantly being told about the importance of being authentic, and then being taught lists of key things that great leaders do.
They’re told to have vision, lead “tribes”, “be up to something”, be passionate about what they want to achieve, and at the same time to apply prescriptive models and theories to engage people and deliver results.
For all the appeals to individual authenticity, training is often based on leadership techniques that mean behaving in an unnatural way.
When I train people on these skills and behaviours, I am often challenged about this tension between being authentic and true to oneself on the one hand, and using behavioural models and techniques on the other.
How can I be me, yet behave in a way that is not me?
Many answers to this question feel wishy-washy. They undermine the inspiring message of developing the self, and at the same time limit the effectiveness of useful tools and techniques.
I have found the best way of explaining this is to talk about how tools empower the self, they don’t replace it.
Used skilfully, they make us more effective because just being the shoes-off undomesticated self is not the best way to succeed in a workplace environment populated by other people.
There are three reasons why this is so:
- We all have weaknesses and faults
- Other people are different from us
- The workplace is a not a natural environment
This means that just being ourselves is unlikely to be as effective as consciously practising certain learned behaviours.
This can feel disappointing.
Leadership is deeply individual.
It’s about who we are, what values we hold, and what passions we have that drive our personal visions.
People embark on leadership courses hoping to unleash these passions, hoping to spend time gaining a deeper understanding of who they are what drives them, and then often find the course is a series of tools that anyone could master, tools that blunt, not sharpen, their keen individual edge.
It seems as though the only way to be effective as a leader is to crowbar yourself into an agreed template, and carefully affect an idiosyncratic eccentricity to ever-so-slightly and ever-so-harmlessly, stand out from the crowd.
It’s about finding the right balance between the best you can be in the professional environment, plus the skilful use of tools and techniques that enable you to be even more effective.
Using these techniques doesn’t make you less you.
Knowing the technique behind a great tennis shot doesn’t make Serena Williams’s game any less her own. It empowers her.
Knowing the right way to play a guitar chord doesn’t make Jimmy Page any less of an individual musician. It empowers him.
It’s not about replacing your personality with that of a robotic corporate leader that toes the party line, it’s about empowering you by adding technique - you still have to find the right techniques for you, and still have to practise their use.
Explaining this on leadership and other behavioural courses makes a real difference to helping learners understand that they can acquire techniques that don’t feel natural, yet still remain authentic.
I like to call this You Plus.
It’s you, but more so.
You plus some well-practised techniques.
You Plus is about being the authentic you, but building on that in the most positive and effective way possible to make you the best leader you can be.
Or, to reduce this post to a single quote from that great thinker Dennis the Menace:
"The best thing you can do is get good at being you"