Authenticity: How Women Leaders Can Be True To Themselves

First published in The Glass Hammer 22 March 2010

It seems obvious to many of us that a diverse group of men and women leaders are more likely to be creative and make better decisions than a homogenous group of men.

If we manage to achieve gender-balanced leadership in our organizations we will, however, only reap the rewards if women leaders are able to be true to themselves. If women have to behave like men to succeed, the benefits of gender diversity remain unrealized and we might as well not bother.

But can women leaders really be authentically themselves within the structure of our current male leadership model, or must they conform to traditional male leadership values and behaviors in order to progress their careers?

Authenticity in this context refers to our capacity to align our behavior with our core values; to know what is most important to us and act accordingly. Most would agree that this is a quality fundamental to all good leaders.

Classic Dilemmas

The question of being true to yourself within any organizational culture is one to be wrestled with by all leaders, male and female. For women the unwritten rules of leadership within today’s organizations create conflicts in values that result in classic dilemmas.

Values


Dilemmas
I value my career and I value family I want children and I need to stay on track to be a leader
I value my career and I value my family I want to be with my family and I need to be physically present at work for long hours
I value my career and I value my family I want stability for my family and I need to be geographically mobile to take advantage of career opportunities
I value good relationships and being liked I need to be tough, strong and assertive and I need to be warm, caring and collaborative
I value being judged by my results I want my work to speak for itself and I need to promote myself
I value being rewarded on merit rather than who I know I want my work to speak for itself and I need to network and influence people to get ahead
I value being true to myself and I value being a leader I want to behave in alignment with my values and I need to conform to the unwritten rules of the male leadership model

What is distressing or painful about a dilemma is having to make a choice we don’t want to make, particularly when that choice involves a values conflict. These conflicts certainly account for some of the angst I encounter when coaching women leaders in traditional organizations.

This seems like an impossible situation. How can women achieve positions of  leadership within the structure of a male leadership model and at the same time live in alignment with their values and be true to themselves?

There is no easy answer, but from experience I know that understanding your hierarchy of values in any given situation will help you to retain your authenticity and make choices that enable you to stay true to yourself.

Choice and values

Our core values tend to stay pretty consistent for all of our lives. They are part of who we are, what we believe in, the assumptions we make and they inform how we behave. In any given situation we may find that we have more than one of our values in play and that we have to make a choice about how to behave.

For example, my good friend models the dress she has bought for a function we are attending that evening and asks me if I like it. I don’t particularly like the dress and I am confronted with a choice between two of my values: kindness and honesty. If I am true to my value of kindness I will tell her that I like the dress because there is no time to change it and I don’t want to risk spoiling her evening; or I can be true to my value of honesty and tell her I don’t like the dress. What do I do?

The answer is that I have to decide my hierarchy of values in this specific situation. I need to decide in the moment if honesty is more important to me than kindness, or if kindness is more important to me than honesty. It’s not that I am changing my values –  both are still important. But in any situation where my values are in conflict I need to decide which value is senior right now. My values stay the same, but the hierarchy or what is most important will change in different situations and at different times of my life.

At work, we are confronted with value conflicts every day and it helps to be conscious of  the fact that we always have a choice.

Situation Values Conflict Potential Choices


To progress my career I need to take an oversees appointment but my family refuses to move I value being with my family and I value career progression At this time in my life and my career what is more important to me: more time with my family or progressing my career?
To improve my prospects for promotion I need to build relationships with the right people in my organization but I would rather spend the time just doing a good job I value progressing my career and I value doing my best in my current role Is it more important in this organization and at this point in my career to devote all of my time to my current role, or to take some of my time to building important relationships?
I want to exercise so that I am fit and healthy but my job and my family take all of my time I value my health and I value my job and my family Will I put my job and my family before my health and fitness; or is my health important enough to take some time to exercise regularly?
I am naturally a collaborative and inclusive leader, but to get ahead in my organization I need to be more competitive and assertive I value being collaborative and inclusive and I value becoming a leader in this company Do I learn to become more competitive and assertive or do I try to find a different environment in which to express my leadership potential?
I prefer to be understated and let my work speak for itself, but the people who get ahead around here seem to be good at self-promotion I value modesty and I value getting promoted Do I learn how to promote myself or do I remain modest and hope for the best?

Aspiring to become a leader in traditional organizations within the structure of a male leadership model creates a certain inevitability that you will frequently be confronted with choices such as these.

If you want to stay true to yourself as a leader and as a woman, the important point is to recognize that you always have a choice. The choice might be a difficult one, but if you know what you stand for and make your choices based on your hierarchy of values in any given situation, you are more likely to be a successful leader. And the world needs more successful women leaders!

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