Article: The Leadership paradox: Become a Chameleon or stay true to oneself?


The Leadership paradox: Become a Chameleon or stay true to oneself?

Leaders in transition often come across situations where they have to adapt their personality traits in order to perform their role of a leader. But at the same time, this means changing and challenging their true self.
The Leadership paradox: Become a Chameleon or stay true to oneself?

Leaders can develop an adaptive authentic style by experimenting with different styles


Talha moved from being a product manager at a flat and lean start-up to a team lead at a conventional product manufacturing company. Her new company had legacy practices embedded in the culture, one of those being a great regard for seniority; and thus followed a very hierarchical approach to work. Talha had come from a culture of brainstorming with every individual involved and collectively arriving at probable solutions. This was an alien behavior in the current environment, as they were used to being told what they were supposed to do and they would deliver in the time proposed.

This change led people to believe that their new boss is wasting their time by calling these meetings and indulging in micro-managing. When the team’s frustration with the new approach and loss in productivity was communicated to Talha by the management, she realized she was in a difficult space. She could fake behaviors, not be her original self and follow a hierarchical approach to win over her team and be a successful manager. But that would mean she would have to be someone that she is not.

Leaders face such dilemmas on multiple occasions in the workplace. Leaders often fall into the paradox pit where they have to choose between being their true self and being successful.

“Career advances require all of us to move way beyond our comfort zones. At the same time, however, they trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our identities,” says Herminia Ibarra, Organizational behavior Professor at INSEAD

Ibarra makes this observation from her extensive research on leadership transitions. But in certain situations, doing what feels natural to you can backfire.

Ibarra argues that authenticity is “gold standard” for leadership. And also explains that authenticity can be adaptive, implying that being your rigid self is not the definition of being authentic. Leaders can develop an adaptive authentic style by experimenting with different approaches, believes Ibarra.

Ibarra classifies leaders into two categories on the basis of their personal styles:

  1. Chameleons: They adapt to different situations, without feeling fake. “They may not get it right the first time, but they keep trying on different styles like new clothes until they find a good fit for themselves and their circumstances,” says Ibarra in her article on Authenticity Paradox in Harvard Business Review.
  2. True-to-selfers: They are true to themselves and always say what they truly feel in any situation. For example, an individual may have a habit of being overly-critical as a part of his management style. He may end up finding faults in even the best of projects, even if he likes the end outcome but believes it could have been better.

    If a critical trait is accompanied by a dismissive attitude, his team members may feel extremely demotivated and demoralized. The intention may have been to help the project be perfect, but rigidly following his personality traits without considering the impact on the team did not bode well for their performance.

View yourself as a Work In Progress.

Common circumstances where leaders face this paradox

Herminia Ibarra, from her academic research, points out the three situations wherein leaders face this paradox the most:

  1. Taking charge of new roles

    When taking charge of a new role, the first 90 days are the most critical in exerting your personality style. This is the period when your perception is created and it is important.

    Click here for a 4-step guide to find out how you are perceived at work.

  2. Selling themselves

    In leadership, getting by-ins from all stakeholders is as much important (if not more), as it is to come up with ideas. There are multiple stakeholders at play and sometimes it requires being adaptively authentic to get buy-ins. People who are rigid and stick to their comfort zone, have a hard time getting stakeholder buy-in. Being ‘chameleons’ helps here.

  3. Handling negative feedback

    A major part of a leader’s role is not as much about technical skills, but virtues dependent on personality traits (often deemed as soft skills) and emotional intelligence. Most feedbacks that leaders receive are thus on their soft skills or behavioral traits rather than functional expertise. This can be hard for true-selfers simply because on receiving negative feedback about their individual self, they start to wonder how can they even change who they really are – if they have to be a success at work?

Things leaders can do to deal with this paradox

What can leaders do to combat this dilemma which they repeatedly face at work?

Professor Ibarra suggests three things they could do.

  1. Adopt diverse role models 

    Ibarra explains that to grow as a leader you need to view authenticity “not as an intrinsic state, but as the ability to take elements you have learned from others’ styles and behaviors and make them your own.” 

    Have multiple role models, understand and learn their best characteristics and imitate and apply them to your leadership. 

  2. Set learning goals

    Set yourself personal goals and strive to achieve them. That is one way to adopt a different personality trait and not feel like an imposter. Ibarra recommends this approach because according to her, by having learning goals, “We stop trying to protect our comfortable old selves from the threats that change can bring; and start exploring what kinds of leaders we might become.”

  3. Create a new story

    Explore beyond your own personal narratives of defining moments of your life. “Consciously or not, we allow our stories and the images of ourselves that they paint, to guide us in new situations,” explains Ibarra. So it is important to alter them sometimes. 

Next time while facing a dilemma like Talha, remember that you can be adaptively authentic. If you have a nuanced understanding of authenticity, you will realize you do not have to choose between being authentic and successful. You can be both. Just don’t be rigid and develop your personal style using trial and error.


Image source: Designspiration

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Topics: Leadership, Life @ Work, Diversity, #Career

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