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The Import of Authentic Leadership – Especially In Times of Crisis
Like most of you, my entire work routine shifted in profound and unprecedented ways in March 2020. In fact, I still have whiplash. I have failed miserably on the “balance” and “boundaries” front. Indeed, I don’t even know what those terms mean anymore. I’ve noticed lately that I am just too exhausted to even act like I’ve got this figured out. Long gone are the well-organized days, performed like a flawless dance routine. When someone asks “how’s it going?” I laugh: “Do you want the real answer?”
These exceptional times have taught us many things, and reminded us of others. For me, the import of being authentic is one of them. I’ve grown more confident in the past several months by challenging myself on this front – perhaps out of choice, but largely out of necessity. How can we grow, learn, educate, and help, if we too quickly tidy up our messy lives for Zoom calls? I’ve witnessed many of my colleagues, clients, and friends grow on this front, too. We’ve witnessed toddlers waddling into the background of a Zoom screen, heard dogs barking, or seen colleagues taking calls in their cars, closets, or basements. We’ve been forced to come clean about our “dirty little secrets,” ahem, our lives outside of our offices. And we are better leaders for it.
The Authenticity Principle with Ritu Bhasin1
On Tuesday, September 29, my firm proudly sponsored an Association of Corporate Counsel virtual event, "The Profound Importance of Authentic Leadership – Especially During a Crisis," featuring dynamic speaker and globally recognized expert in diversity and inclusion, Ritu Bhasin. Ms. Bhasin, president of bhasin consulting inc., is an award-winning speaker, author, and expert in diversity and inclusion, women’s advancement, and authentic leadership. Her Amazon bestselling book, The Authenticity Principle: Resist Conformity, Embrace Differences, and Transform How You Live, Work, and Lead, was released in fall 2017. A great many of Ms. Bhasin’s points are worthy of our attention as business leaders – especially now.
As Ms. Bhasin explained, the practice of cultivating authenticity is fundamental to creating an inclusive work environment — a culture where every team member feels they can bring their authentic self to work as much as possible. Given the tremendous uncertainty, stress, and anxiety, blurred lines between work and home, and fear of bias during this crisis, authentic leadership is more important now than ever before. A commitment to authentic leadership can only help to unlock belonging, inclusion, psychological safety, empowerment, and creativity among team members.
Ms. Bhasin explained: “Authenticity means that, in all of our interactions, we say, ‘I see you. I want to honor you and all the things that make you unique.’ Authenticity is the fundamental route to building an inclusive environment where people can have experiences of belonging.” Ms. Bhasin shared that when people are safe to be who they are and experience belonging, they are empowered. Examples of this empowerment include more freely sharing their opinions, introducing and practicing alternative ways of working, participating in decision making, and voicing dissent or disagreement. This work environment is important to nurture and cultivate because it feeds into innovation and creativity. Ms. Bhasin noted that “diversity of thought is the benefit we derive when people can share and be who they are. Innovation and creativity are not born in the land of sameness. Sameness is where innovation goes to die.”
According to Ms. Bhasin, authenticity is an ideology or way of life that we can and should embrace going forward. It is a consistent practice of choosing to know and be who you are. It is a practice. Ms. Bhasin explained that there are many opportunities every day in our work lives where we can challenge ourselves on this front. She also cautioned that we should be mindful of those moments when we most vehemently resist being authentic. We may rail against our identity in these moments because of biases coming our way.
Ms. Bhasin also encouraged us to be mindful that bias is not a one way street. The impact of bias is profound: we dish it out, we receive it, and we internalize it. It can be directed at values, personal attributes, nationality, language, gender identity, age, learning style, ethnicity/race, class/socioeconomics, communication style, religion, education, upbringing, sexual orientation, professional experiences, social pastimes, and (dis)ability. Ms. Bhasin explained that in response to this bias, we often feel pressure to “perform,” meaning we conform or we mask our uniqueness. Furthermore, we do this across several behavioral dimensions, including: how we express our emotions and appearance, how we communicate non-verbally, what content and words we share, our actions, and how we speak.
In order to practice authentic leadership, Ms. Bhasin encouraged us to be more mindful of what “self” we are and “when.” Ms. Bhasin explained the “three selves framework” as being (1) our authentic self (who we are naturally), (2) our performing self (who we are when we feel like we don’t have a choice but to mask or change), and (3) our adapted self (when we acknowledge that we cannot be authentic one hundred percent of the time and chose, happily and willingly, to adapt and adjust behavior to meet our needs and/or the needs of others). As Ms. Bhasin noted, there is a big difference between being disempowered and not being authentic versus being selective of what to share based on our emotional bandwidth.
For me, personally, Ms. Bhasin’s discussion could not have come at a more relevant time. Now is not the time for walled up, sterile behavior. We must communicate with one another. As Ms. Bhasin stressed: “Being authentic is the ultimate declaration of self-love and self-respect.” In the midst of continued tragedy, trial, and uncertainty, this is precisely what we should strive to receive and foster on the work front. I believe that is what makes us vulnerable as professionals and what makes us human. Indeed, encouraging humanity and humility in our boardrooms is a sure sign of true progress.
1 Published with Ms. Bhasin’s approval after review. Ms. Bhasin has many self-reflection worksheets for authenticity at https://ritubhasin.com/empower.
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