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Wired for Authenticity
Seven Practices to Inspire, Adapt, & Lead
By Henna Inam
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Henna Inam
All rights reserved.
What Is Authenticity?
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
— Oscar Wilde
"Just be yourself. You'll do fine."
Ever heard this well-meaning advice? I gave it in an e-mail to a mentee to get him pumped up for an interview for a job he really wanted. Just after I hit Send, I thought, Well, that could be disastrous advice! Here's why.
This young man is painfully shy. In practice interviews, his body language shows his lack of confidence. I should have told him, "Don't be yourself. Be the interview candidate who gets the job!"
"Just be yourself" can be an overused cliché that those of us who mentor others repeat without understanding the unintended consequences.
Authenticity is not deciding who you are and then rigidly applying this to every leadership situation. Instead, authentic leadership is leading adaptively from your core, choosing who you need to be to serve the greatest good in this moment.
The Dangers of Just Being Yourself
In my executive coaching work, here are some of the dangers I observe of what people assume is authenticity.
Just be myself (forget what's appropriate) — "Yes, well, I may have dressed inappropriately for that job interview, but I wanted them to see the 'real' me because, you know, I'm cool and hip."
The real you is not the person who is insistent on projecting an image. The real you knows what you want and is willing to flex to what's appropriate in a situation.
Just be my (insert emotion here) self — "If I'm angry or frustrated, being authentic is letting all that emotion hang out. It gives me license to show up and blow up."
The real you isn't whatever emotion you happen to be having. The real you acknowledges and can experience the emotion you're having and chooses what display of emotion is appropriate to the situation.
Just be myself (and remain in my comfort zone) — "I would like to get ahead, but I hate to brag about myself. That's just not me!" Or "I know I need to build strategic relationships to move ahead, but it feels so fake to do that. That's just not me!"
The real you focuses on goals that inspire you and doesn't let "that's just not me!" stand in the way.
Just be my (insert opinion here) self — "I know I need to work with Mary over in Accounting, but I just don't like her. Trying to be friendly with her would be so fake. That's just not me." We take strong stances on our opinions and let our stances define and limit us.
The real you can stretch to find the right attitude or perspective in the moment that best serves your goals and values.
Just be my (insert value here) self — "This means if I value honesty, I can tell the boss I dislike him."
Many of us think that being ourselves is being true to our values without regard for the impact it has on others. That can result in career-limiting moves. The real you understands your values and takes full responsibility for the impact you have on others by choosing the behavior that will serve the greatest good.
Many tough decisions cause many of the values we have to be in conflict with one another. What if my values collide with what needs to be done for the greater good? Abraham "Honest Abe" Lincoln, former president of the United States, was open to coercing others and indirectly offering payoffs to get the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) passed. He had to wrestle between his personal values and what was in the interest of the greater good.
The real you works through your personal values, your sense of purpose, others' perspectives, and the greater good to make a choice. These are not always easy choices, yet they define and shape who we are becoming and our leadership legacy.
Who Is the "Real" Me?
We aren't who we think we are. There are parts we have that are hardwired. Other parts of us are continually changing and evolving. In the nature-versus-nurture debate, it is time to embrace the "and." Both are responsible for who we are — our hardwiring and our softwiring.
There are parts of us that are a fundamental part of our DNA. They are the factory settings at birth. For example, human brains are hardwired to respond to emotion before reason and to classify and categorize information to create conclusions. MRIs have shown that, in general, male brains have more development in areas involving math and geometry, while female brains tend to have more development in areas involving fine motor skills and language.
Generally, female brains have more connections between the hemispheres and more white matter throughout, which result in greater language skills, detection of emotions in others, and greater memory as a result of weblike thinking. Men have less of a connection between their hemispheres and more gray matter, which tends to result in more sequential thinking and greater spatial and processing skills.
Many of us also seem to be born with certain innate talents (for example, athletics, music, language, and art) that make achievement in these areas easier.
Oursoftwiringcomesfromourexperiences.Ourbrainsdevelopshortcutsfrom our experiences that drive our preferences. Neuroscience research suggests our softwiring is a lot more malleable than we ever thought before. Our early experiences literally formed our brain wiring, creating pathways that helped us categorize experiences based on whether they resulted in pleasure or pain.
When we were young, we were rewarded for certain behaviors (through attention and approval) and punished for others. Being smart little kids (and I know you were that!), we quickly figured out the behaviors that got us pleasure and avoided pain. This created neural pathways in our brains that created habitual patterns of who we think we are. For example, I was rewarded for being smart, ambitious, obedient, and responsible, so that has shaped my behavior over time, and it becomes who I think I am. And since our brain patterns just continue to deepen with our experiences, we continue to reinforce our childhood behaviors that frame up our self-identity.
The Nature of Identity
Knowing ourselves is like peeling an onion; there are layers and layers. It was great for Socrates to say, "Know thyself." I found myself asking, "Wait, which self?" Who we are is not constant or fixed.
Our identity is important to us, as it gives us a way to see ourselves, to connect with others like us, and to belong. We identify ourselves based on different attributes — our job title or profession, our gender, our religion, our nationality, our ethnicity, our politics, our social and economic status, our hobbies, our roles (mom, husband, boss, etc.), our values, our strengths, even the sports teams we root for. Our identity is a complex mix of how we see ourselves and want others to see us. It's useful because it helps us belong.
The trouble is when our identity starts to limit us and how we perceive our self-worth.
We become attached to who we should be (traits we define as "good") and who we should not be (traits we define as "bad") based on what was rewarded in the family we grew up in. Based on these, we start judging ourselves and others. Here's a personal example. In my view, being smart is good. I find it very easy to judge people who are not as smart. I can easily overlook their other valuable traits because my brain likes shortcuts. Once I decide that someone is not smart, my brain just continues to gather data that is consistent with my prior conclusions and ignores data that is inconsistent. This very normal human brain behavior is called cognitive dissonance. It is exacerbated under stress — a place many of us live much of the time.
Importantly, once I decide that I am smart, I can't possibly notice the places I am not so smart and need help. This can often be my "blind spot." If my self-worth is hinged on being smart, I will make sure I'm seen as the smartest person in the room, leaving very little room for others to be smart. There is also a risk that I don't notice when I'm not being smart, judge myself severely when I appear dumb, or don't take on situations where I know I won't be the smartest person around. See how I limit myself when
I'm overly identified with being smart? Not so smart! Our attachment to these labels also starts to limit our adaptability to change and to being effective in different situations. They get us stuck. They prevent us from thinking outside the box because we're in the box. For example, if I attach my self-worth to being a successful executive and I happen to get fired, I lose all sense of myself. If I attach my self-worth to being a good wife and I happen to get divorced, I lose all sense of myself. If I get my self-worth from being in charge, I may find situations where I am not in charge to be very challenging.
Importantly for our leadership, our attachment to these labels can start to prevent us from creating inclusive cultures. It is a very human tendency to think highly of those who are like us. Our labels can create an us-versus-them separation where we start to judge those who are different as inferior. Most of the time, this happens very unconsciously. Our unconscious biases keep us from creating workplaces where diverse thinking flourishes. Once we put someone in an "inferior" box, how can we get his or her best contributions?
These labels make up the outer core of our identity, but they are not who we are. At our core is the authentic self. The authentic self is the one that can observe the labels we are attached to. It is the conscious awareness that helps us grow, evolve, adapt, and choose who we are being in any given moment.
Does this mean that we give up our identity labels? Not entirely. We will always have our style preferences, and our identity labels help us belong.
We practice holding our labels lightly as leaders so we have greater range in our behaviors and are more adaptable and effective in a greater range of situations.
We can also see and value other perspectives and people who are different from us. This is a trait critical to creating organizations where openness to diverse thinking drives innovation and better decision making.
Who Is My Authentic Self?
My authentic self is the intelligence at the core of who I am. It the part of my being that is wise, calm, creative, and adaptive. It is the most inspired part of me. It is a state of awareness that excludes all the labels that create fear and separation from others. It feels connected to everything. It enables me to choose a course of action that serves the greater good in that moment. I call mine my personal Center Intelligence Agency (CIA) — not to be confused by the United States CIA. It is a level of conscious awareness that I have when I am at ease, feeling fully alive and at choice, and able to make wise decisions. It is a state of being when I am free of any judgment or habitual ways of thinking and free to make any choice that will serve the greatest good.
What Is Authentic Leadership?
Authentic leadership is an in-the-moment choice of who we're inspired to be that serves the greatest aliveness within us and others.
Authentic leadership is the full expression of "me" for the benefit of "we."
Imagine you are Marissa Mayer. It's February 2013. Against some pretty tough odds, you've been appointed CEO of Yahoo! at the young age of thirty-seven. You are charged with turning around disappointing performance in a company that has lagged in its expectations. The top job has seen a revolving door of six CEOs in eighteen years. After eight months on the job, you have to make a decision about whether to reverse the hugely popular work-from-home policy for Yahoo! employees. While most tech companies encourage workers to stay on their campuses, offering them free food and other perks, no high-tech firm has ever enforced on-site work rules.
It's a bold move for any CEO, with countless studies citing that working from home is the wave of the future, supported by happier employees, greater productivity, and a cleaner planet. What could make this an even bolder move? You're female. And you're pregnant. You have to consider all the expectations of those labels to make your decision.
What do you pay attention to as you make this decision? There are many logical reasons to leave things as they are: the work-from-home data and the tech culture, allegiance to being a female and pregnant, desire to gain loyalty from the Yahoo! workforce, lack of any "guarantee" of results. Instead, Marissa Mayer decided to make a bold move to reduce the work-from-home flexibility for Yahoo! employees.
In making her decision, Marissa Mayer demonstrated clear inner authority — a key marker for authentic leadership and a critical skill for leaders of the twenty-first century.
Inner authority is the courage to make tough and even unpopular decisions in uncertain circumstances. Only when we have a clear inner compass can we have the courage to make these types of decisions. And Marissa Mayer has been very clear about her priorities — "God, family, Yahoo!" Inner authority is what it takes to lead as a CEO, and it's inextricably tied to authenticity.
Prerequisites for Authentic Leadership
There are three prerequisites for authenticity to happen:
1. We must slow down, be present, and be at ease and centered enough to make a conscious choice.
2. We must have a sense of what will bring greater aliveness to ourselves and others.
3. We must act from our values and sense of purpose in service of something bigger than ourselves that serves the greater good, rather than from our fear.
In the next chapter, we will discover why authenticity is critical to us and the workplace and the communities we live in.
The Three Big Ideas from This Chapter
1. We aren't who we think we are. There are parts of us that are a fundamental part of our DNA (our hardwiring), while other parts are continually changing and evolving based our experiences since birth (our softwiring). Nature and nurture are both responsible for who we are.
2. The authentic self is the intelligence at the core of who we are. It is the wise part of us that holds our identity labels lightly and can step back from a situation and choose the most appropriate course of action that serves the greater good in that moment. It is highly adaptive.
3. Authentic leadership requires us to slow down, be present, and be at ease and centered enough to make a conscious choice; we must have a sense of what will bring greater aliveness to ourselves and others, and we must act from our values and sense of purpose rather than from fear.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. What are the identity labels I associate with myself (job title, what I own, roles I take on [e.g., for me, this might be compulsively wanting to be the smartest person in the room])? What are the behaviors that I'm compelled to as a result of these labels?
2. In what ways is my self-worth attached to each of these labels? What would be the impact on my self-worth if I had to part with one of these labels?
3. What are the risks of attaching my self-worth to these labels? How do I limit my adaptability and freedom to act from choice when I am attached to these labels?
4. Think of times you made decisions from your authentic self rather than your identity persona. What are these? How did you know you were making these decisions from your authentic self?
Experiments to Try Today
When we get stuck in certain behaviors that become habitual, they actually prevent us from being authentic and fully at choice, accessing all parts of ourselves. The exercises below are to help you expand the range of your leadership behaviors so you can be more effective across a range of leadership situations while still being true to who you are.
1. Try stepping out of one of your labels and taking in the opposite perspective (e.g., if you lean on one end of a political spectrum, find three reasons to support the other end; if you tend to be hardworking, find three reasons why taking the time to rest or play may be useful). Notice any discomfort you feel when taking on an opposite perspective. Practice this for twenty-one days. What impact does this have on you and your interactions with others?
2. Pick a behavior that is habitual for you and consciously intensify the practice of it. For example, in my case, this might be being perceived as the smartest person in the room. Unconsciously, I may do this to be admired by others. In this experiment, I would double up my efforts to be smart and then notice the impact on others. Am I getting admiration, or is it having a different impact? This experiment may have you really experience how what you assume to be "good behavior" can also backfire.
Excerpted from Wired for Authenticity by Henna Inam. Copyright © 2015 Henna Inam. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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