Jessie’s boss wanted her to be more bold. Jessie wanted that, too.
During one of our first conversations, she said, “One thing I’ve been doing to become more bold is to speak up sooner. I see other people do it and I know it works. But when I try it, I get self-conscious and awkward, like I’m watching myself give a really bad performance. It feels completely inauthentic to me. I don’t think I can be bold if I’m feeling phony.”
That began a conversation that lasted several months about what it means to be authentic.
Addressing her concern about being phony, I replied, “To me, that sounds like the self-consciousness that comes when you learn anything new. New behaviors obviously can’t feel as integrated as lifelong habits. But that awkwardness doesn’t mean you’re not being authentic. You’re just continuing your development—authentically.”
She mulled that over, then said, “So I just need to be an authentic version of myself that happens to speak up sooner!” She liked that.
Balancing confidence with modesty
At our next meeting, Jessie began by reporting that the idea of being an authentic version of herself who happened to speak up sooner had actually worked!
“I spoke up sooner the other day. It felt like it was some other part of me. It was like I’d flipped some switch.”
“And that didn’t feel phony?” I asked with some surprise.
“No, because it was me throwing the switch. And it’s my switch. I’m not trying to be anyone else. However I speak up sooner is how I speak up sooner! I might be better at it in a year, but right now, I’m doing my best.”
That reminded me of a comment I’d heard a singer make during a radio interview. I told Jessie I’d heard an interviewer ask if, during the making of her album, she had been intimidated recording a Gershwin ballad that had been recorded by so many “greats” before her.
With a big smile in her voice, the singer answered, “Hey, I can only do what I do. It’s going to be my version no matter what. I just knew I loved that song and wanted to sing the heck out of it.”
She grabbed my attention when she said that. It sounded completely authentic.
She wasn’t boastful. She didn’t inflate (or deflate!) herself in comparison to anyone else.
Nor was she modest. She completely embraced her own style. If she wasn’t to your liking, that’d be a shame but she’d survive.
That balance of confidence and humility creates one type of authenticity. But there are others.
Authentic behavior? Or authentic intention?
Another time, a concern of Jessie’s allowed us to examine authenticity from a different angle.
Her group had taken on another assistant. Jessie knew that the assistant’s ultimate success would be determined by how thoroughly Jessie trained her. “That means I have to be available to her all the time. And I want to be! But sometimes when she knocks on my door, I get angry. I’m sure she sees it, but I don’t really mean it.”
She worried, “For that split second, I really am angry about being interrupted one more time. So my reaction is authentic. But the message I’m sending isn’t the one I authentically want to send. So am I being authentic or not?”
I suggested she try to answer that question by observing herself closely for a while. At the next session, she had a big smile on her face.
“I’m so relieved,” she said.
I asked why.
She said, “I sat her down and told her my concern. I explained that I didn’t mean to appear angry. That I really do want her to come to me whenever she needs to. She was great. She said she knew it didn’t mean anything and she thanked me for telling her. Now I can be authentic around her and not worry.”
“So letting her know how you were experiencing yourself allows you to behave authentically in the future. Am I getting it right?”
“Yeah!” she agreed emphatically. She liked that so much she asked me to say it again.
I said, “Telling her how you experience yourself allows you to behave authentically in the future.”
“Right,” she agreed. “So from now on, I don’t have to try to hide that impatient part of me and be someone I’m not. I can just be authentic.”
“You know what’s interesting? I didn’t think your story was about you being authentic in the future. I thought it was about having already been authentic.”
“How so?” she asked.
“I thought the authentic moment happened when you sat her down and told her your concern. That was authentic. Your ability to narrate your experience of yourself made you authentic in the moment.”
I went on, explaining, “You were able to say, ‘Hey, here’s what’s happening with me. I know I’m doing it. It’s not what I intend. Sorry if I look angry.’ That’s authentic because it’s so high in self-awareness.”
This was a double-win for Jessie: her disclosure had been authentic and she could be authentic in the future.
Emotions as authenticity
At a later coaching session, Jessie was upset with herself. One of her direct reports had made a mistake that was going to create a big ripple with another department. The mistake was completely understandable but, before she’d been able to stop herself, she’d done a bit of ranting—more than the situation called for, she felt.
“You’re allowed to have feelings, Jessie. They’re as authentic as any other part of you.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think emotions belong in the workplace. Especially women’s emotions.”
“Jessie, for the most part, your emotions are out of the workplace. I don’t think this one rant means your feelings are running wild. Listen, I’ve seen leaders of both genders benefit from a genuine display of emotions.”
I told her that a few years earlier, I’d coached a leader named Marla. Like Jessie, Marla was distressed at having lost her temper. I was curious to hear Marla’s story because she didn’t seem like someone who lost self-control easily.
She said that during a staff meeting, one of her direct reports blindsided her when he admitted he hadn’t completed a report that had been due the previous staff meeting. This despite the fact that, just a few days before, he had assured her he’d have the report at the staff meeting. Marla felt this breach was unacceptable and she’d lost her temper.
I asked Marla, “Did you call him names?”
“No, but I told him how upset I was. And I told him exactly why. But I know I talked really fast and felt my body heating up the whole time. That’s me losing my temper.”
“Your response seems completely reasonable, Marla. He broke a commitment to you, then caught you off guard during a meeting. Anger seems appropriate.”
“But I don’t want to get a reputation for flying off the handle or whatever it would be,” Marla said.
“A one-time display isn’t going to create your reputation,” I replied.
Genuine feelings are genuine
Stopping the story, I said to Jessie, “But that one-time display did create her reputation—for the better. She became known as a straight shooter. Her team began to see her as someone who would hold them to high standards and be passionate about the work. It was a turning point for her and her team. A positive one.”
“That’s a good story,” Jessie said, still cautious. “But feelings in the workplace still seem dangerous to me.”
I told Jessie, “Pretending you don’t have any feelings won’t make you authentic. In fact, I think it would make you less authentic.”
“But isn’t this permission to throw tantrums?”
“We’re not talking about tantrums,” I said. “We’re talking about an appropriate expression of emotions. Naming your feelings while you’re having them is deeply authentic. It’s particularly important when you’re interacting with your direct reports. They need to trust that you’ll tell them what’s important to you.
“Marla made it clear to her entire staff exactly what was important to her. She showed it through her feelings. And she was able to narrate it: ‘I’m really upset. Here’s why.’ She owned that she was upset. But she wasn’t acting upset. She wasn’t shouting or throwing things. Or calling him names. Or shaming him. It was very authentic.”
To Be Authentic
Throughout our many months of coaching, Jessie had taken copious notes. By the end of our engagement, she’d created a little cheat sheet for herself about authenticity. It read:
To Be Authentic:
- Trying something new doesn’t mean I’m not being authentic. New behaviors aren’t comfortable. I can tolerate that.
- My way of doing things is my way of doing things. I’ll be my version of “bold.” Whatever that looks like will be authentic because it’ll be mine.
- Balance confidence with humility.
- Feelings happen. Express them appropriately.
Narrating my experience is always authentic. Tell people what I’m experiencing while it’s happening. Or as soon after as possible.
Great list! Jessie’s self-awareness was well developed. As a consequence, she often displayed The Look & Sound of Leadership™.