The Tension between Authentic and Adaptive Leadership

Modern leadership isn’t one type of leadership; it must be a blend of approaches

Change today requires more persuasion and negotiation than ever before, increasing the focus on leaders’ style and approach. And the leaders we work with are—unsurprisingly—quite adept at modifying how they lead, accommodating others’ needs to get them on board with new initiatives. But they often share a private worry: the more they adapt for others, the more they sacrifice and even lose their “true” selves. Even as they generate wins for their teams and their own careers, they feel personally adrift and unmoored from a deeper integrity. 

To what extent must a leader adapt themselves to succeed? How much is too much? And when does adaptation become self-erasure? 

Ultimately, only you can be the judge of how much you should change. But if you’re unsure of how to proceed, it may help to first discern whether you’re feeling pressured to compromise a core value, or if you simply need to make a stylistic change to how you communicate.

The Challenges of “Authentic” Leadership

Years of research have shown that being authentic is good for your well-being, and that putting others’ feelings before your own or otherwise masking your feelings negatively affects both mental and physical health. Yet every successful leader knows that there are times when authenticity isn’t enough or even possible. They must balance multiple demands:

  • The pressure to succeed: to follow the most politically savvy course to achieve the desired results
  • The pressure to be liked: to build rapport and positive relationships, often by mirroring others’ viewpoints (potentially at the cost of their own)
  • The pressure to perform: to appear as a certain kind of leader, and to continuously grow and improve as individuals
  • The pressure to conform: either to the organization’s norms, or as a response to other leaders’ communication styles
  • The pressure to be moral: to act in the best interest of the greater good and be perceived as a good person within and beyond their role

How torn you feel by these competing pressures may depend on how strongly you feel committed to a belief; the intensity or duration of the conflict; and how much contradiction you personally are willing to tolerate. The more intense or longer you feel these competing pressures, the worse they will wear on your personal resilience, and you may feel:

  • Regret over how you’ve acted or communicated in the past 
  • Discomfort or guilt for doing something against your principles
  • Shame for beliefs you held in the past
  • Fatigued by not knowing how to communicate to others, or by comparing yourself to other leaders around you

Research further shows that employees feel more authentic, and have better interpersonal relationships, when they share the norms and values of their organization. If you feel your values are deeply misaligned with the organization, your best option may be to leave. Before it gets to that point, though, reflect on the following:

  • Reconnect with your objectives for joining the organization. How does it serve this moment in your career?
  • Compare your values and the organization’s values. Are there any lines you don’t want to cross?
  • Assess how long you personally can live with the dissonance. What options do you have to change the situation or move on?

Adapting Your Communication Style

Upon retrospection, though, you may realize you’re being asked to make a stylistic change, or that what you thought was a personal value is actually a preference. After all, you don’t just have one “true” self—you play different roles in life depending on the context, and have yourself evolved and changed as a leader over time. It’s possible the change you need to make is simply the next step in your leadership journey. Often, this type of change hinges on communication styles, which consist of six components identified by Professor of Organizational Psychology Reinout de Vries:

  • Expressiveness. How conversational and informal a leader is. Do you start up conversations and inject humor, or are you “strictly business”?
  • Preciseness. How accurate, considered, and substantive a leader’s thoughts are. How effectively are you able to convey information?
  • Verbal aggressiveness. The extent to which a leader displays anger, being upset, or derision towards others. Do team members feel comfortable bringing you problems, or do you act dismissively or derogatorily?
  • Questioningness. How open a leader is to debate and discussion. Do you encourage curiosity and welcome new and unconventional thinking?
  • Emotionality. The extent to which a leader displays their feelings. Do you wear your heart (or other emotions) on your sleeve, or do you maintain neutrality?
  • Impression manipulativeness. How you manage others’ opinions. Do you charm others or otherwise try to ingratiate yourself, or do you conceal your feelings? This is often where accusations of “politics” come out to play, but realistically, anticipating and reacting to others’ reactions is necessary.

You might find it helpful to think of these as colors you can paint with when communicating. Each component is on a scale, with expressiveness, preciseness, questioningness, and verbal aggressiveness having the most impact on your relationship with your team (with verbal aggressiveness having the greatest potential effect: negatively). You’re not a “Preciseness” communicator or an “Expressive Emotionality”—it’s the total combination of these different components that make up your personal style, and it can vary depending on your audience. 

Reflecting on these different components (either independently, or with a trusted coach or mentor) may reveal current strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. You might realize you’ve been stronger in one component simply because you’ve had more opportunities to use it, but now you need to develop a new skill. If that’s the case, you can make the transition easier by asking yourself:

  • What stories have you told yourself about your career, and is it time for a new one? 
  • How would a leader you admire respond in your situation, and how can you incorporate that into your style? 
  • What experiments can you try to change your style over time?
  • Who can support you as you reinvent your style? 

Authentic vs. Adaptive Leadership: A New Approach

Both authentic leadership and adaptive leadership are prone to traps. Authentic leadership can make you feel like you must be one kind of leader, and eliminates boundaries between you and the organization—the “most” authentic leader would be one whose values are indistinguishable from the organization’s. Adaptive leadership, meanwhile, can leave you adrift, unmoored from your values and leaving your team unsure of what they can expect from you on any given day. 

That’s why modern leadership isn’t one type of leadership; it’s a blend of approaches. Yes, you should have a sense of your core values, and you should recognize when change and resilience are necessary. You may not always get it perfect, but you’ll know you’ve made the right choice by how re-energized you find yourself: you finally feel confident, and that you’re communicating from a source of authenticity once again.

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The Tension between Authentic and Adaptive Leadership
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