Authentic leadership: It's not easy being you


On a recent trip to Melbourne, I met with Dr Hannah Piterman, author of Unlocking Gender Potential: A Leader’s Handbook. We were discussing the pressure women come under to change aspects of themselves when ascending the leadership ladder – even to the extent of having voice coaching to sound more masculine and, therefore, authoritative.

“That’s ludicrous,” she said. “You are never going to be as good at being someone else as you are at being yourself”.

Sage advice, not only for women, but for all leaders. After all, authenticity is tantamount to credibility – without it no one will follow you. It’s a point I often make when talking to leaders about strategic communications and leading change. You have to be authentic and build trust if you expect people to listen to you, and it’s fairly difficult to be a leader when no one is following.

Paradoxically, there is one thing some women may need to change in order to be themselves and authentic in their leadership – and that is their confidence levels.

That’s because it takes a certain level of confidence to resist the pressures to conform to leadership styles and expectations based on stereotypes. And, at the risk of perpetuating another stereotype about women, it is true that too many of us still suffer from a lack of confidence and ‘imposter syndrome’.

“Sadly, many women internalise societal discrimination and see themselves as imposters. The imposter syndrome is hard to break when there are so few female role models and female competence is judged by higher, harder and shifting standards.” (Read more in Dr Piterman’s recent article on Westpac’s Gail Kelly).

It is far too simplistic, of course, to suggest that women should simply work on their confidence levels. There are many factors that negatively impact women’s confidence, such as sexism in the workplace.

For instance, one study found that “… benevolent sexism led women to experience many mental intrusions, such as preoccupation with the task, self-doubt, and decreased self-esteem”.

Another report, cited in my research last year, found that sexism, in its different manifestations, such as low-level sexual humour, sexual slang and comments targeted at gender, was the “most pervasive and pronounced fit indicator that was a predictor of the levels of functioning and growth for women in organisations”.

“The impacts of low-level sexism are insidious but … very real. The perpetrators may not believe or accept that they are being sexist, and will often respond when challenged that they are ‘just joking’… [This] presents two challenges for the women to ruminate about. First they are challenged about their gender, and second, about their sense of humour and social competence in not understanding social norms”.

Clearly, women working in sexist environments are going to find it particularly challenging to build their confidence levels. And even if they do manage it, they then face a number of other challenges, like the negative perceptions of ‘assertive’ women.

A Catalyst report found that women leaders are subjected to extreme perceptions, and face trade-offs that men in the same situation do not experience.

“When women act in gender-consistent ways – that is, in a cooperative, relationship-focused manner – they are perceived as “too soft” a leader. They are perceived to “fit in” as women, but not as leaders. When women act in gender-inconsistent ways – that is, when they act authoritatively, show ambition, and focus on the task – they are viewed as “too tough”. In this case, they are often accused of “acting like a man” and being overly aggressive”.

The opportunity

Women aspiring to leadership positions face all sorts of double-binds and barriers, and there is no simple solution. But there may be some advantages for women in understanding how biased or sexist work environments and organisational cultures could be negatively affecting their confidence – because that awareness itself might make a difference to how they feel and therefore respond.

More importantly, there is an opportunity for organisations wanting to attract, recruit and retain talented women to look at their own organisational cultures to determine whether or not they have biased or sexist workplaces. Changing such cultures will require ongoing commitment from senior leadership teams to financially support and champion the development and implementation of gender diversity strategies tailored to their organisations. And authentic leadership communications will be key to the success of any such culture change initiative.

Lucy Sanderson-Gammon, MBA, is director of Luminous Consulting Limited. She provides management and communications consultancy and short term contracting services, as well as business and career coaching, and manager communications training.

This article is also available on LinkedIn.