Authenticity as the basis of a new leadership identity

To a certain extent, anyone who currently has or aspires to a managerial role will find things harder than they used to be. Not only are more basic skills required, it is also becoming increasingly important for people to develop their own leadership identity. ‘Someone who can lead others on the basis of his or her own personality will come across as more authentic, and tend to gain the confidence of other employees more easily. However, in organisations with a strong corporate culture, it is not always evident that one’s authenticity can and should be retained,’ says Katleen De Stobbeleir, Professor of Leadership at Vlerick Business School. ‘And of course authenticity should not be an excuse to neglect your work or stop investing in training. It’s a delicate balance.’

But where did the importance of this new leadership identity suddenly come from? Katleen has identified several underlying trends. ‘First and foremost, we can see that young people have a very different view of leadership. They are less inclined to want a managerial role and believe far more in concepts such as shared leadership, in which every member of the team can act as a manager. When asked whether they aspire to a managerial role, they are also far more likely to ask themselves whether this is something they really want. There is also the fact that the work/life balance often plays a role here’.
It has also been observed that the transition to the first managerial role often takes place faster and that the path is sometimes more rocky as a result. Katleen: ‘As many companies have a small middle management team and are also frequently confronted with a reversed age pyramid, young people are being asked to adopt managerial roles at an increasingly earlier point in their career. Within our current knowledge-based society, however, this is often also when people are still busy developing their intrinsic competencies.’ Thirdly, there is a kind of generation gap between managers in the old days and managers in the modern age. The new generation are less prepared to fit in with an existing framework. ‘When progressing to a top-level position, they consider it very important to remain true to themselves and not to have to pretend to be someone they’re not or behave differently,’ explains Katleen. ‘They no longer wish to adopt an identity imposed on them by the company.’

Finally, management is not always easy. All managers are faced with crisis moments that require restructuring measures and will sometimes also have to fire people. ‘Although you can practise conveying these kinds of negative messages in a more positive way, many managers still detest this part of their duties,’ explains Katleen.

Leadership as a lifestyle

Although several different aspects underpin the search for a new leadership identity, there is more emphasis linking this to one’s own personality than ever before. Being authentic also goes hand in hand with confidence, which Katleen considers to be pretty much the buzzword of the moment. ‘There is currently a confidence issue with leadership. This is also another reason why people no longer want to become managers: they have lost their own confidence in leadership. So, as a manager, how can you earn the confidence of others? Have the courage to be authentic and to show what you stand for. After all, being a manager not only means facilitating things, it also means working inclusively and making sure that people respect each other’s differences.’ However, authentic behaviour clearly involves a subtle balance, because in Katleen’s opinion one can also be too authentic. ‘It’s actually about becoming a better version of yourself. As a leader, you must have the courage to analyse your behavioural patterns and to experiment with new ones, but you shouldn’t start play-acting. People are often not aware of their own potential and the many facets of their personality. They want to be authentic but don’t always know how to achieve this, because of a lack of role models in their environment. They look at the end product and think ‘I could never do that’. But it’s a question of falling down and getting back up again and finding your own way. In actual fact, leadership should be regarded as a ‘way of life’: how you respond to a situation at home can also be translated to a professional context. Leadership is interwoven with all aspects of life, not just with work. In this sense, young people often rightly regard leadership as something which is separate from managerial ambitions. They tend to regard it as more of a position that needs to be filled, and feel that this role could just as easily be shared within a team as taken on by one individual.’

Learning by doing

All these aspects are leading to a turning point in the way in which training is organised. According to Katleen, there are two major trends. On the one hand, the focus is shifting from the mere development of skills to guiding people through their transition. In addition, leadership development is becoming increasingly tailored to the individual. ‘Whereas you used to be able to steer a large group down the same path under the motto of “one size fits all”, we are now shifting to “my size fits me”, with programmes that are geared to each individual and personality.’

‘We live in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Precisely because the world is constantly changing and the company doesn’t always have all the answers up its sleeve, agility is the most important skill for a manager. You need to be able to change course quickly and adapt to current trends. As a result, we will no longer just be training people how to lead meetings or give presentations, although these aspects remain important. Instead, we immerse them in simulations with a final outcome that is not even known to the trainer, as there is no right answer. On the contrary, there are several possible solutions. The decisions that you make as you progress through the simulation reveal a great deal about what kind of leader you are. Did you also see the alternative solutions? What can you learn from this? Which signals did you miss?’ Such simulations also demonstrate very nicely how leadership is something that develops between individuals and that it is not necessary to assign this to just one person.

To get the most out of the process, the most crucial methods are feedback and coaching techniques. ‘As there are no ready-made answers, the lessons are mainly learned through the process itself,’ clarifies Katleen. ‘This means you also need people who will observe this process and provide feedback. In the past, people very much tended to zoom into reflecting on “who am I”, often on the basis of a self-knowledge test. However, there is a growing realisation that your identity is also shaped by your environment. By means of exercises and a great deal of feedback and coaching, these days it is possible to place leadership in more of a context.’

A long-term view

Finally, Katleen would also like to add that managers should never rest on their laurels. ‘If you are a good manager today, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you will also be one tomorrow,’ she says. It’s all to do with sustainable leadership. ‘If you follow several basic guidelines, you will be perceived as a leader in a very short time. But how do you sustain it in the longer term? Sustainable leadership is only possible if you are truly authentic. Goffee and Jones came up with a good term for it: “Be yourself with more skill”.’

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