When women start their careers or take their first leadership role, their impulse is often to assimilate. In the process, many end up abandoning or concealing their authentic self, and that’s a shame because when you leave behind your authentic self, you leave behind many of the unique talents that go with it.
Indeed, successful leadership demands the expression of your authentic self. In almost any field you can think of, it’s the leaders who are “real” who get attention and respect.
Honesty, openness, and transparency are integral to authenticity. This means taking actions that have a positive effect on others; striving to tell the truth, even if the news is bad; and, perhaps most importantly, acting according to your personal values and ensuring that the person you present while at work aligns with who you really are.
Being authentic also means not being afraid to fail. “Failure is hard but it’s also the key to unlocking confidence,” says Mia Alexander, VP of customer success at Dave, a digital banking service. “We’ve all been in situations where we’re given opportunities and we don’t deliver. But the work and growth you put into overcoming failure can make you invincible. My goal is to put my team in situations in which they fail forward and have opportunities to figure things out in safety.”
When you do fail, it’s crucial to be honest about it and hold yourself accountable. “Failure is an important part of the growth process,” Alexander continues. “If you’re nervous to fail, you won’t grow. But people will give you more grace if you’re honest about your mistakes and committed to finding a resolution.”
A key step in preserving your authentic self is forgiving yourself when you do make a mistake. “A big part of being your authentic self is simply granting yourself forgiveness,” says Alexander. We’re all human, she explains, but women tend to be harder on themselves, especially in a professional setting. It’s good to hold yourself to a high standard, but it’s also vital to forgive yourself when you don’t perform to perfection.
“When you make a mistake, you can apologize to others but you can still beat yourself up over it,” Alexander adds. “Practicing forgiveness is something we all have to learn. Forgive yourself first and then allow others to do so as well.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Great leaders find answers. How? By asking questions. When you start out, there will naturally be that nervous voice in the back of your mind wondering when and how or even if you should ask questions. But it’s important to take that leap, especially if your question is genuine and can help you get to the next best action in a particular scenario. The moment you take that leap, a sense of confidence will come with it—and confidence is a necessary step toward authenticity.
When you embrace your authenticity, you’ll improve, and your company will improve, as well. Simmons University’s 2021 Leadership Development Survey shows that authentic staff feel better about themselves, they’re able to do their best work, and they’re effective at building stronger relationships with colleagues. The study also reports that respondents who can be authentic at work feel more confident (71%), as well as more engaged (60%) and happier (46%).
These overall positive feelings of authenticity can increase attraction to and retention of jobs in male-dominated industries. But that’s not to say women don’t still face challenges when trying to be authentic in traditionally male industries such as IT or tech support. It’s well documented that women experience pressure to conform to long-established norms in order to advance up the ladder.
Lean into Who You Are
Working in a male-dominated industry like fintech, Alexander admits there were many challenges she had to overcome. But she never forgot who she was or what she was about.
“I’m a Black woman and to this day I’m often the only Black woman in a particular room,” she says. “But that also means people are going to remember me. I’ll bring unicorn notebooks and rhinestone pens into that room and that’s just me saying I’m going to fully lean into who I am.”
Years ago, Alexander decided she would embrace the opportunity to change minds and make people think differently about what a leader looks like. “I come into the room often as a person who isn’t necessarily represented. But I also realize I have the biggest impact-potential in that room,” she says. “I realize I can be the one to break the mold and open the door for the next generation of leaders.”
Feel Your Feelings
In male-dominated industries, women are often labeled too emotional, too sensitive, too aggressive, or too whatever. Alexander says she has learned not to let unfair labels hurt. “If you’re afraid of what people will label you, you will not grow. What I truly believe in is accountability. If I’m emotional about something, then I own up to it and say, I’m emotional about this.” Take the label, and turn it around. Emotional is passionate, sensitive is perceptive, and aggressive is ambitious.
When you try to avoid who you are and hide your true self, you put up barriers that keep others at a distance. That’s not good. “There was a point in my career where I was very uncomfortable with crying, even if they were tears of joy,” Alexander says. “The fact that I wasn’t authentically feeling my feelings was starting to set a bad example. I remember when I did finally show emotion, how many other people came up to me and said it was so important to see that. I realized, no matter what, I am going to feel my feelings and be accountable and say, ‘Hey, I feel this way.’”
Mary Barra is the CEO of General Motors and the first female CEO of a “Big Three” automaker. One of her first acts as CEO, in 2009, was to reduce GM’s 10-page dress code to two words: “Dress appropriately.” It was a subtle yet powerful move. Overnight, she redefined GM’s culture, allowing employees to reappropriate their appearance and be their authentic selves at work every day.
Showing up to work as your true self means acknowledging who you really are and embracing all the quirks, capabilities, and talents you have. Being your authentic self is the foundation for building meaningful relationships and creating a more productive work environment based on trust, respect, and mutual success.
Tabana Jabeen is the SVP Client Services, Strategic Accounts at ibex.