Robert-photo-w-icon-150-4-7-10-FINAL4-150x150In 2013, the Edelman Trust Barometer documented that only 18% of people reported that they trusted business leaders to tell the truth. That same year, Gallop polled 180 million employees and reported that only 13% of them are engaged at work. With confidence and morale so low, one attribute is most often mentioned as the primary reason that employees respect their leader.

Authenticity enables leadership. But it can also disable it. How is that possible?

Leaders are influencers and change agents. When they work in alignment with their personal values and natural inclinations, there is harmony and things get accomplished. Those they lead sense truthfulness – they view their leaders as genuine and they are more willing to engage with a leader to achieve goals.

On the contrary, when leaders create a public persona for themselves that fits their responsibilities but contradicts with their principles, then there is discord and things do not go well. Credibility is typically the first casualty, and then trust, and before long, the leader is vulnerable.

But if authenticity is such a universal leadership enabler, when does it work against the leader?

When challenged with an initiative that pushes the leader outside his or her comfort zone, or when demands and expectations are raised, or when responsibility is increased, the leader is confronted with a choice – sustain the authentic sense of self that has worked well or strive to improve in order to meet the new challenge. A clear set of core values and strong self-image help a leader navigate choices and drive progress. But if seeking to improve, preserving an authentic manner that is too rigid can become a barrier to that progress.

When unsure of our abilities to meet a challenge, it is typical to retreat into familiar behaviors and methods. We rely on our unchangeable core values, but our tendencies and behaviors associated with those values should evolve with experience gained from confronting demanding situations. Our temperament is refined and our genuine, true self develops over time, uncovering qualities that would not have appeared through reflection alone.

The paradox is that striving to improve involves learning, a process that includes some “unnatural” behaviors that increase vulnerability and work against authenticity. But it’s learning that produces those moments that cause leaders to challenge their sense of self and teaches them the most about leading effectively.

When leaders perceive themselves as “works in progress,” with clear core values and evolving professional identities molded by trial and error, they can develop a personal style that feels right to them, refreshing their authenticity and aligning them with their organizations’ changing needs.

How aligned are your professional responsibilities and personal core values?

What type of challenge could cause you to reassess your authenticity?