President Barack Obama, as millions around the world have seen in his victorious battle for the United States’ top political position over many months, is completely comfortable as a leader. He does not copy the leadership traits of others. He is confident and totally at ease with his own style of leadership – a trait that makes him so appealing.
And so it must be for workplace leaders. To be effective, they must ultimately find their own leadership style or personality, one that integrates their life experience, personality traits and expertise into their positions.
Some executives new to leadership roles struggle to find their styles. Many feel like they have two identities—a work identity and the one played out in their personal lives. Some might argue that this distinction is a good one. People don’t want leaders to behave like they may at home. But they do want leaders to be comfortable in allowing their personalities to come through in the role.
Those who are afraid to be themselves at work may appear rigid or seem to be trying too hard. People find them difficult to approach and feel they’re not being genuine.
There can be major psychological barriers to integrating one’s personality and character into the work one does:
Lack of Self Acceptance
Many leaders are nervous to be themselves at work out of fear that they won’t be good enough for their role. Similar to the imposter syndrome, these people tend to believe they do not deserve the role and must hide this from others. Allowing others to see who they truly are may betray the perceived incompetency. However, these fears are generally unfounded and the reluctance to allow others to see you in favour of playing a role can backfire. Questions about competence arise when there’s a lack of confidence. If you’re unable to be yourself in the role you can convey a lack of self esteem that may affect how others perceive your ability to do the job.
Lack of Trust in Yourself
Some find it hard to be themselves at work because they believe that if they let their guard down they will do something inappropriate. Identifying what that might be is important. If there are aspects of your personality that you wish to change it is a good idea to use your reluctance to be yourself as the start. Some managers fear that if they don’t keep themselves under tight control they’ll yell at employees or colleagues, come on sexually to staff or dress inappropriately. It is worth exploring any behaviour you believe to be inappropriate and ask yourself: Would I really do this? If I am afraid of doing this, is it founded in past behaviour or is this a baseless worry?
If executives fear doing something inappropriate, they might consider changing the attitudes and behaviours that would make them distrust themselves at work.
Tendency to Second Guess Yourself
When leaders struggling in their role have received negative feedback, they can doubt their perceptions and reactions to events at work. For example, if one has been told that he or she is too harsh when giving negative feedback to staff, the leader may compensate with a less-than-upfront approach in an effort to “soften” his or her style. An individual may second-guess himself when dealing with difficult staff issues. This can cause inaction to the point of paralysis. It is hard not to second guess yourself when given critical feedback, but taking the risk to learn new behaviours means trying out new ways of interacting. This requires you to be willing to make a few mistakes. Trusting yourself to learn and change is an important step in these situations.
Leaders new to the role can appear rigid when fear of making a mistake erodes their ability be themselves in the leadership role. Stipulations that the proper executive follows these protocols, behaves consistently in this way and approaches problems from a particular vantage point, leads to a lack of creativity and a split between the person themselves and the role they play. When being perfect becomes important the challenge is to find out about who you are, what degrees of freedom do you have and what is really important to you. There are no perfect leaders and those who allow themselves to be themselves tend to perform admirably.
Allowing yourself to shine through the role you are in augments it and lets you be more creative and effective. Cultivating your own leadership style can be achieved in three steps:
1. Stay In The Moment
An antidote to second guessing yourself is to focus on what you are doing at the moment you are engaged in an activity or a conversation. It is hard to worry about how you are coming across when you are staying in the moment. You are most likely to be yourself when you allow yourself to be fully engaged in what you are doing when you are doing it.
2. Give Yourself Permission
It is important to provide yourself with the latitude to experiment with how you would express yourself through your leadership role. No one leader is the same and trying to imitate an inspiring leader or follow some kind of leadership theory to the letter reduces leadership to a formula. Integrate your knowledge about yourself and your expertise to augment the role. To deny yourself the latitude to be yourself robs you of an opportunity to find new ways of conducting business and interacting with others. You lose the ability to relax and fully access your competency when making decisions and dealing with people.
3. Get To Know Yourself
Find out about yourself as a person and how you express your personality in a business context. It is important to notice what you feel and what you naturally do or say during the day. How you behave when you are not feeling self conscious can help you put your role and your true self in harmony. For example, one executive had convinced himself that it wasn’t appropriate to express gratitude to staff but he was intrinsically an appreciative person. Instead of stifling the desire to say thanks, he allowed himself to show appreciation and immediately felt rejuvenated and authentic.
Being yourself in your role brings wisdom to the job and infuses the work with meaning and energy. You’ll take more pleasure in your work, find yourself being more open to experience and more inspiring to others.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at email@example.com
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.