By Being Authentic, You May Just Be Conforming

Herminia Ibarra Leadership Harvard Business Review

Lei Jun, CEO of the $10 billion Chinese company Xiaomi, has made headlines for creating products that look and act a lot like Apple’s, such as its new thin smartphone.  And the comparisons don’t stop there — news reports consistently label Jun’s leadership style as imposture. As Business Insider put it: “Jun wears a black shirt and jeans, just like Steve Jobs did. He stands in front of a big screen with a well-designed presentation that shows off the product. He gets the audience pumped.”

In this age of authentic leadership, originality is at a premium, and people perceive imitation as more fakery than flattery. The thing is, authenticity itself has become a performance — and an exercise in conformity.

Take, for instance, the speeches we are used to hearing from North American and, increasingly, European senior executives. They’ve become more personal in recent years, but also more staged. Typically the speaker starts with an anecdote, preferably about a difficult experience that tested the executive and forged his or her leadership values. That’s followed up with “what I have learned” and, often, a comment on the importance of being authentic. The executive usually tries to be humorous and self-deprecating. The whole presentation has a casual, spontaneous tone — but it’s orchestrated down to the last detail.

In a world saturated by TED talks and YouTube videos, this sort of “identity display” has become a skill that aspiring senior leaders are expected to master to demonstrate their potential to move up. “You need to be compelling, unforgettable, funny and smart. Magnetic, even,” reported a recent NYT article. You also need to be conspicuously original, or you’re lambasted like Jun.

We tend not to think about how scripted all this is until someone goes off-book. Several years ago, as I listened to a Chinese CEO give the opening keynote address at a conference in Beijing, I was struck by how much his words and even his tone departed from the Western “authentic” norm. He spoke at length about macroeconomic trends affecting the business world, uttering not a word about himself, his values and experience, or his personal journey.

The ways we seek to persuade others and the kinds of arguments that command respect are far from universal; they are deeply rooted in each culture’s philosophical, religious and educational assumptions. (Geert Hofstede, the author of the pioneering book Culture’s Consequences, makes that point when he talks about how his Dutch modesty failed to win him the job he wanted with an American firm.) Yet the common template for expressing one’s authentic leadership is deeply American, based on ideals such as self-disclosure, humility, and individualistic triumph over adversity.

For leaders from other cultures, this feels unnatural — even inappropriate.  A Chinese executive student of mine told me about the discomfort she experienced in an authentic-leadership seminar. “People who had not suffered major personal setbacks felt ashamed,” she said. And the entire idea of sharing such stories with total strangers made her cringe.

Despite corporate initiatives to build understanding across cultures and promote diversity, global leaders are still expected to express their ideas assertively and to use personal charisma to motivate and inspire people. Whether taking charge in unfamiliar territory, rallying demoralized employees, or selling ideas to diverse stakeholders, they’re being asked not only to be proficient in their domain but also to convey a message that’s rooted in their own experience. Proof of competence requires intimate evidence.  Executives who persist in clinging to their facts, figures, and PowerPoint decks are criticized for lacking vision and the highly prized “soft skill” of persuasive communication.

It’s ironic that authenticity has become one more requirement to which a leader must conform, especially when you consider that it’s supposed to be an antidote to homogeneity. (After all, the message is to be yourself, not what someone else expects you to be.)  Yes, we must learn to connect with people in order to move them. But there’s more than one way of doing that. We lose something precious when we all converge to a single model of leadership.

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