Authenticity. What’s so controversial about being yourself at work?

The Refuge. Manchester, January 2017 (Ian Sanders)

It’s a long time ago since I sat in an office leading a team of people.

But thinking back to my time as a managing director, I know that my team got to experience the real Ian. I brought my sense of humour to the job, I was pretty relaxed, I tried to be a good listener. If friends had eavesdropped on those company meetings they wouldn’t have seen any difference between the bloke in the pub and the guy leading a team at work.

Fast-forward to my working life today and the same is true. Whether I’m training a room of BBC journalists, taking a business leader on a walk-and-talk, or presenting to a client, you get the real me.

I realise that working in the creative industries and being self-employed means I’m at an advantage: I don’t have to fit into any box. If I’d been a manager in an accountancy firm as opposed to a creative one, I realise it may have been harder to retain my individuality.

Being myself at work feels the most natural way to be. But I see that some people have trouble with this notion. ‘Authenticity’ in leadership is dismissed as a fad (some may call it ‘authenticity’, but isn’t it just about being human?).

Writing in the FT yesterday (‘Trump’s plain speaking fuels the leadership cult of authenticity’), Andrew Hill used President Trump as an example of the “tell it like it is” school of authentic leadership. He quoted Deborah Gruenfeld and Lauren Zander in a much cited Harvard Business Review article:

“Acting in a way that feels truthful, candid and connected to who you really are is important, and is a leadership quality worth aspiring to… On the other hand, being who you are and saying what you think can be highly problematic if the real you is a jerk.”

So maybe therein lies the problem with the concept of authentic leadership?

Authenticity is only an issue if you’re “a jerk”. Because no-one wants to be managed or led by a jerk. If you’re a decent human being — yes, and you have flaws, and ups and downs like all of us (that is after all, human) — then why not show up as the real you?

I believe the world of work benefits from its workers and leaders being more human. I’m fascinated by bridging that gap between the Work You and the Real You. Perhaps in some roles it can’t apply, but there’s still room to be human whether you’re a software engineer or an airline pilot. Because here’s the thing, I only found happiness at work — and more importantly, in my life as a whole — when I stuck to who I really was. When I was trying to be someone else, stepping into roles that weren’t me, that’s where it all went wrong (you can see how it all went wrong in my Do Lecture ‘Finding Your Story, Your Purpose & Your Compass’).

Today when I work with clients, I find we often get the best results when I take people outside. Out of the office — on walks along the river or meetings in coffee shops — I find they are most direct and open about their aspirations. These are environments where they don’t feel they have to fake it and are closer to their real selves, relaxed and free from constraints.

Remember the backdrop to all this. We’re going to be working longer than ever. The division between work and home is increasingly more blurred. We spend our evenings on the sofa answering emails, we regularly work from home. At the same time employers are — finally — waking up to the impact work has on our mental health.

Why should people put on masks when they go to work? Surely it’s in everyone’s interests to stick to who we really are — better employees, better mental health, improved productivity? And if bullies and jerks become leaders, then maybe it’s time to stand up, be our real selves and call them out for who they really are?

Ian Sanders is a creative consultant, storyteller, coach and author on a mission to make the world of work and business more human.