Why being true to yourself is the worst mistake a leader can make.

Amongst the many crimes levelled at Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, possibly the most controversial is the question of whether she ‘faked’ the depth of her voice in order to improve her credibility in media interviews and investor pitches. Not content with a simple tale of multi-million dollar fraud, the charge of inauthenticity has to been thrown in for good measure. It seems the very worst thing a leader can do nowadays is to appear fake or phoney. We should all be on the lookout for any CEO or aspiring entrepreneur who attempts to hide their ‘true self’ by lowering the tone of their voice or, say, dressing like the female Steve Jobs.

But it wasn’t always this way. Niccolo Machiavelli wasn’t big on authenticity. History’s most notorious and cutthroat management theorist, he believed that in order to be effective, a great leader must learn to become a great fake artist: ‘One must know how to color one’s actions and to be a great liar and deceiver. Men are so simple, and so much creatures of circumstance, that the deceiver will always find someone ready to be deceived.’

In modern management terms,  the Machiavellian leader is a ‘high self-monitor’: a man  (for Machiavelli tended to see leadership as a uniquely masculine trait) with the ability to monitor and manage himself in such a way that he is able to maximize his influence in any given situation. By comparison, low self-monitors lack this form of self-mastery and tend to express their unfiltered thoughts and feelings, rather than attempting to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of others.

So how does an authentic leader strike the right balance? Authenticity clearly isn’t about manipulating others, but it also isn’t about sharing every thought and feeling you have in the office. Some degree of self-monitoring is necessary if you want to be able to work with people you don’t like, or function effectively in situations you find stressful or upsetting or just plain boring. INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra has called this the ‘authenticity paradox’: being true to yourself at work can limit both personal growth and professional impact.

Machiavelli’s solution to the paradox is pretty simple: don’t bother striving to be authentic. Lie where necessary. Never let anybody see your flaws – you may admit these to yourself in private, but never own up to them in public. But Herminia Ibarra’s solution is more subtle. Her belief is that the ‘self’ is not fixed, but multifaceted and permanently evolving with each new experience. People who cling to an unchanging sense of themselves are doomed to reinforce existing ways of thinking and working. In contrast, the mark of authentic leadership is a willingness to learn and grow, which requires a flexible sense of self. Ibarra’s leaders challenge themselves to go beyond what’s comfortable or familiar and they allow their values and beliefs to evolve as a result.

What does that mean in practice?

For one thing, it means that authentic leadership is not so much about being true to who you are, and more about being true to who you want to be. Your identity as a leader is something you get to shape and play with – there’s nothing inauthentic about personal or professional growth. Ibarra’s form of ‘adaptive’ authenticity begins with avoiding becoming too attached to the type of person you used to be – this inhibits your ability to evolve into the leader you could be. She also prescribes learning from diverse role models. Be selective in borrowing the tactics and styles of leaders you admire – particularly in areas you know you feel exposed. Even if it’s something as basic as how to take a compliment or how to wrap up a meeting, or – heaven forbid – how to communicate with gravitas.

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