The Authentic Manager: True or Fake?

Authenticity is not always a desirable trait in a manager, especially if their natural behaviour is unpleasant. Managers need to adopt different styles for different situations, says Stefan Stern.
Stefan Stern
Nov 09, 2017

People have had enough of ‘fake news’. But what about ‘fake managers’ – those bosses who put on an act when they are with you but then behave very differently when you are not there? Phoney bosses are not to be trusted. Surely it is time for everyone to reject artifice and embrace that uncontroversial virtue – authenticity?

Not so fast. The apparently simple solution of ‘just being yourself’ is not adequate to the complicated task of managing and leading people. Market conditions vary and situations change. Good managers adapt their behaviour, and how they come across, to fit the situation they are in. Is that being phoney, or is it simply effective versatility?

Mark Snyder, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, has been exploring this question of behavioural versatility (he calls it ‘self-monitoring’) for many years. High self-monitors are conscious of their image and may try to appear more confident than they truly are. When this works they may seem deft and in control. But they may also arouse suspicion that they are simply insincere and, yes, inauthentic.

Low self-monitors, on the other hand, may insist on ‘being themselves’ whether that way of being is helpful or not. They may also remain stuck in a limited pattern of behaviour even when the world around them has changed and calls for something more. ‘This is who I am’ may sound like a confident and even a defiant statement. But if that person is in the wrong place at the wrong time that particular brand of authenticity will be of little use.

Good managers adapt their behaviour, and how they come across, to fit the situation they are in. Is that being phoney, or is it simply effective versatility?

How should managers develop a broader array of responses? In their book, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones say that managers should ‘know and show themselves’, not be too distant or mysterious. So, just be themselves, then? Not quite. Goffee and Jones say that bosses need to be ‘authentic chameleons’: true to themselves, but also adaptable. They advise leaders to ‘be yourself, more, with skill.’ Show more of yourself, but with sensitivity to the situation. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

The need for lifelong learning applies to management style as well as technical knowledge. As coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith has put it, ‘What got you here won’t get you there’. Old tricks might not cut it in a new and more demanding job. Thoughtful managers will want to improve their repertoire of interpersonal and presentational skills.

Learn and change

In her 2015 book, ‘Act like a leader, think like a leader’, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra was deliberate about the title’s word order—not because you have to ‘fake it until you can make it’, she says, but because sometimes you have to ‘experiment until you learn.’

Managers need to ‘move forward to a future version of yourself that has a core, but that also has learned new things and grown.’ The pursuit of authenticity can be wholly self-centred. People you manage do not want ‘full transparency’, Prof Ibarra says. ‘They want you to behave like there’s some kind of interdependence, and that you have to work with people. It’s not just about being yourself, it’s about creating productive working relationships…it’s not just about you.’

Five issues for leaders to consider:

  • Just be yourself’ is bad advice. Which self are you talking about? Managers have to play many different roles in the same working week.
  • Authenticity is not necessarily a virtue. No-one wants an authentic ego-maniac, for example. There may be aspects of your personality which would be better off hidden.
  • Stay true to your values not to the way you behave. Adapt your behaviour to fit the situation.
  • Wrong person, wrong job, wrong time? Then move on. Authenticity cannot help you if you are in an unsuitable role. Nor can pretending to be what you are not.
  • Personal growth is more important. It is not inauthentic to grow and become a different, better person. A ‘growth mindset’ allows you to imagine becoming more.