Why Leaders Need to Stop Being True to Themselves

Dr. Tim Foster - 3 September 2021

No one wants to be accused of being inauthentic, especially a leader. Authentic leadership has been lauded for building better relationships, higher levels of trust, greater productivity and a more positive working environment. Conversely, leaders who wear masks are said to undermine trust, reduce their effectiveness, and become psychologically conflicted.

No wonder leaders are forever being told to drop their masks and reveal their ‘true selves’ (e.g. Fremon 2021; Northouse, 2020; Fauda, 2013). In a recent book, Potent Leadership: Drop the Mask, Ignite the Real You and Reclaim the Leader Within, Ruby Fremon proclaimed, ‘What people really yearn for is someone who…lives and operates authentically. They’re looking for you, stripped of the façades. You, undiluted, leading with your true self—your potency (2021).

So it may surprise you, but in this blog I want to challenge this consensus and argue that authentic leadership is flawed, unhelpful, and theologically unsustainable. Leaders need to stop being true to themselves.

The Rise of the True Self
Authentic leadership revolves around the idea of ‘being true to the self’ (Gardner et al., 2005). According to Carl Trueman (2020), this idea comes from 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As Trueman (2021), explains, ‘Rousseau’s most famous saying was “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” This memorable statement is a neat summary of his philosophy that individuals left alone in a “state of nature” are the most authentic humans.’ For Rousseau social conventions remove us from this natural state and distort our personhood.

This dynamic is captured by the poet E. E. Cummings (1894-1962) who wrote: ‘The greatest battle we face as human beings is the battle to protect our true selves from the self the world wants us to become.’

Thus, when leaders put on masks, they are being bound by social convention and expectations in ways that are psychologically harmful. Instead, our unique core of thoughts, feelings and convictions must be given full expression if we are to be actualised. As the psychologist Carl Rogers put it, it is only ‘when [a person] fully experiences the feelings which at an organic level he is … then he feels an assurance that he is being a part of his real self.’ (Rogers, 1961: 111).

This idea implies the existence of a core identity that defines a person’s essential nature. It’s too bad that this ‘true self’ doesn’t actually exist.

The Incoherence of the True Self
The most critical issue is the impossibility of identifying this true self, given both our complexity and contradictory natures. Is my true self constituted by my raw emotions, desires or attitudes? Or is it a function of my beliefs, convictions and values? And when my beliefs and desires conflict, which is the real me that should be expressed if I am going to be authentic? As an example, am I wearing a mask when I supress my ‘natural’ anger and attempt to be calm, measured and kind? Is the real me the angry person subject to my emotions, or the kind person subject to my convictions?

The idea of a true self assumes that there is a consistent, unitary and immutable self in which attitudes, beliefs, values, motives, and emotions align. Yet that is not the nature of our being. We are a complex mass of ‘personality dispositions, emotional tendencies, values, attitudes, beliefs, and motives that are often contradictory and incompatible even though they are genuine aspects of the person’s psychological make-up.’ (Jongman-Sereno, K. P., & Leary, M. R., 2019). Since our emotions change in response to context, situations, and social roles, how can there be a true self if that self is so erratic? Our complexity and contradictions render the notion of a true self as incoherent.

The Impossibility of Finding our True Self
Even if the true self actually existed, the demand to be authentic is only useful insofar as leaders know what that their true self is. Yet, numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that no one is more inauthentic than the leader trying to be authentic! Rather than being able to peel away the layers of social conformity and find our true selves, people actually determine what behaviour is authentic by taking their cues from social convention. Studies show that people feel most authentic when they are acting in socially desirable ways, not when they are swimming against the tide because their inner-self dictates it (Harter et. al., 2002; Jongman-Sereno & Leary, 2016). What people tend to perceive as their true self is really how they imagine people want to see them (Vazire & Carlson, 2010; Wilson & Dunn, 2004). So, an introvert feels more authentic when they are being outgoing at a dinner party, because it is a social convention that guests should generate conversation (Fleeson and Wilt, 2010).

‘That is What Some of You Were’
One aspect of this contradictory nature is our moral complexity. Rousseau assumes that the natural self, as embodied in his ‘noble savage’, is pure and uncorrupted. It is through social conditioning that we are perverted as we are forced to conform to convention. Christian theology runs in the opposite direction. We are born in sin, and it is through the process of sanctification that we are purified and made holy (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 6:11). Rather than being urged to be our true selves, we are commanded to put that self to death (Col 3:5)!

Christian leadership demands that we follow Christ as servants (Mark 10:42-45; 1 Pet 5:3). Often this will mean going to some lengths to overcome our selfish tendencies and behave in ways that are not natural. We are not to look into ourselves to determine how we are to behave, but instead we are look to the interests of others as the determinate of how to best serve them (Phil 2:1-3; 1 Cor 10:24).

As a leader I am often battling against my instincts, reactions and emotions. My ‘real self’ is a poor delegator, autocratic, pragmatic, and results-oriented. In order to serve others well I need to slow down, engage others, respect process, and consult. When I do this my behaviour is in line with my convictions, but I am not being true to myself. What’s more, far from being perceived as fake, insincere, and ineffective, when I behave in these ‘unnatural ways’ people are empowered, conflict is reduced, and organisational outcomes are improved.

Inconsistency is a Virtue
It has also become idiomatic that the best leaders are ‘situational’, adapting their behaviour according to the needs of the organisation, the team, and individuals (Hersey & Blanchard, 2013; Goleman et. al, 2013). On occasion this will demand that we adopt a style that is unnatural, and behave in ways that do not come easily. Our capacity to adapt and use styles other than those which are natural, developing our ‘shadow’ side, is critical to being a high level leader.

Part of the problem is that the metaphor of ‘masks’ is inherently negative. The image conveys the sense of being deceptive, insincere, and fake. Other language captures the same idea, but in more positive terms. Words like ‘flexible’, ‘situational’, and ‘adaptive’. At no time, at least in recent history, have these attributes become so important.

While it has an obvious appeal, ‘authenticity’ is a flawed and impossible concept. The heart of Christian leadership is not about being true to ourselves, but true to Christ. Serving Christ’s people will place on us numerous demands requiring us to be more like him, rather than like our true selves. So be yourself when you can, mask up when the situation demands it, and look to the interests of those you lead and not to your own.

See References