How to resolve a key contradiction in leading effectively – ProTem
25 / 9 / 2022

Authentic or adaptive?
How to resolve a key contradiction in leading effectively?

“Life may not be much of a gamble, but interaction is”
Erving Goffman, sociologist. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959

Leading requires the leader to show the world two types of behaviour

  • The consistent pattern of habitual or preferred behaviour demonstrating who they are, what they stand for, their essential authenticity as a human being
  • The ability to adapt and modify their preferred behaviour to be effective with a range of people in a range of situations

What is the paradox about?

“The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, The memory of all that, they can’t take that away from me…”

Ira Gershwin, lyricist 1936

We get to know our leaders by observing their behaviour. We expect this pattern to be broadly consistent, and if it isn’t, we wonder. Under difficult circumstances we expect our leaders to stay true to who they are. Bend too much and followers wonder about whether their understanding of the leader was correct. Leaders play on this idea by mythologizing their own narrative of being ‘tested in the fire’ and not ‘found wanting’. Extreme circumstances show us what people are made of, and who they really are. Or is this just something we like to believe?

While we like our leaders’ behaviour to be consistent, we also expect our leaders to be able to win out in a wide range of situations. A competent leader must be able to calm a heated debate, speak impressively to a range of audiences, influence a meeting, charm a TV interviewer, negotiate with other senior leaders. Adapting behaviour and achieving your goal in a range of situations are signs of the leader’s skill. They have ‘range’ where perhaps we do not. Without these abilities to adapt — and be effective — we might wonder if they are really the right person for the role.

The issue for many leaders is that these two aspects of ‘showing who they are’ appear in conflict. How to be both authentic and adaptable when one sort of behaviour seems to undermine the benefit of the other?

This dilemma is strongly felt by leaders at moments when they feel they must betray who they are in order to deal with the politics. Political savvy becomes more critical as the leader’s career progresses; the need to not be 100% transparent, to behave in unpredictable ways, the need to look the other way in the wider interests of the organization. Unsurprisingly many feel uncomfortable with acting in this way; they see it as incompatible with their integrity.

I’ve seen this work the other way around too. Highly ‘political’ managers, who have risen due to their ability to adapt to situations and bosses, (and to avoid being tarnished with their own failures) can sometimes find that they do not really know who they are any more. Now they are in a position to act on their own agenda, they are unsure what this really is.

In summary then, the paradox is:

  • Too much authenticity without adaptability and we may feel sympathy for the leader but worry about their competence. They feel frustrated. We may even feel sorry for them
  • Too much adaptability without authenticity and we see the leader as manipulative and untrustworthy, even if they are effective. They may lose their way. We may consider them ultimately self- serving.

What are the consequences for leaders?

There are clear examples in politics and business of both these unbalanced types of leaders. As Alan Duncan, an experienced member of the UK parliament said about the contrast between Theresa May and Boris Johnson: “Some Prime Ministers want to do something, others want to be something”. Theresa May was all authentic- vicar’s -daughter and zero adaptability, wooden and rather charmless when electioneering. But she really wanted to deliver Brexit. Johnson is the opposite, a sloganeer, at times almost a caricature of himself, capable of writing articles both in favour and opposed to Brexit, a man who will not even reveal how many children he has. He really wanted to be Prime Minister. Both have experienced the consequences from an unblinking public; the one seen as rather incompetent, the other rather untrustworthy.

Let’s look at both aspects of the way leaders present themselves in more detail before considering how to bridge the apparent contradiction, the ‘both/ and’ approach and not the ‘either/or’.

If you consistently behave in a recognisable pattern, your followers understand who you are, they feel they know you and can perhaps predict what you will say or do in most circumstances. What else does ‘knowing you’ really mean? Reputation should ally with identity, the external mirroring the internal perception. Supposing you tend to make light of difficult situations, to remain optimistic about outcomes (perhaps even against the evidence to the contrary). This pattern of behaviour over time becomes an attribute forming part your reputation as the boss. Aware of this pattern, one of your colleagues might choose to consult you to help them deal with a difficult situation, knowing that you will find a way to lighten the mood and they will feel better. Our working assumption about all people that we know — including leaders — is that they behave in ways that we can also know.

Because we can trust their behaviour, we can, in turn, trust them. Reliability is the foundation of trust. It takes time to show you are reliable.

Now consider the alternative — adaptability. Bosses who read situations and make things happen, perhaps good things in which they have little personal interest, are recognized as ‘shrewd’, ‘streetwise’ and effective — all qualities we would also like to see in our leader. Their ability to charm (or wrong-foot) opponents is testament to that cleverness and sensitivity. Their unpredictability may be an asset in negotiation, as they know how to use their behaviour tactically and are not a slave to their habits or preferences. Like actors they can play many parts credibly. This chameleon behaviour fascinates us, their audience; the ability to convince and be convincing in a wide range of parts seems magical, transformative, not just for the leader but also for the audience.

We get a bit carried away. We are in awe of their capability. (Not a bad characteristic for a leader).

Why do leaders find the paradox hard to resolve?

There are two ideas at play here, one from psychology and the other from sociology. Both relate to defining what we mean by ‘who we really are’.

“We are what we habitually do”

Will Durrant’s interpretation of Aristotle

The Greeks thought people had souls — ‘psyches’ — consistent identities over time that even survived death. While unconvinced about immutability and eternity, psychology agrees that we have a personality, that stable set of behavioural preferences which can be measured and used to anticipate our future behaviour (and therefore performance). In this belief, recruiters have used psychometrics for years. It sounds reasonable, this idea that of pattern in people’s behaviour and you often hear the trope “past performance is the best predictor of future performance” as confirmation of its veracity. As the genetic component of personality is researched, neuroscience is working hard to link these patterns to structures in the brain. Are our preferences enshrined in structures from birth or pathways laid down in the brain by experience?

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599

Sociologists have countered this with a different idea: “Who we really are is the aggregation of all the social roles that we play”. We can be friend, mother, sister, lover, host, guest, lawyer, neighbour, entrepreneur… the list is endless. How we behave in each of these roles is dependent on the situation as well as the person; dinner party guests behave differently from weekend guests and their behaviour influences, and is influenced by, the way their hosts behave. There is no one way of being a mother or a sister, it depends on the children and the siblings as much as the individual, not to mention the past history between them. We inhabit each role in a way that suits ourselves, the situation and the other people involved. Our reputation — how others see who we are — is based on others observation of our performance in social roles we inhabit. As others see us progressively in different situations — and as we in our lifetime inhabit different social roles — ‘who we really are’ changes. Perhaps there is no stable identity, just an expanding collection of acts and parts where behaviour is influenced by the situation, the interactions with others?

As a social species, we are all expert at reading others’ communication behaviour. Pre-language stage babies can ‘read’ and respond to 17 different emotions in their mothers. Communication behaviour is both habitual / predictable and flexible — there is a range of communication “repertoire” in everybody, which can be expanded over time and with conscious effort — but which will always be constrained by preference to some extent. Training can help you to, say, be a better formal presenter, but may never make you love it. You can learn to listen better but never feel entirely comfortable ‘waiting to speak’.

Leading is fundamentally a social role, because leaders need to influence other people. It is not something you can do alone at your desk. It is not something you do in the same way every day. It requires a balance of advocacy, enquiry, listening and emotional expression, just as being a good host (or good guest, or good mother) demands similarly nuanced communication

How leaders choose to communicate reflects their skills, preferences (personality) and the situation. But they are ultimately constrained by their values. Values are about what leaders believe matters, the result of upbringing and life events. Values dictate a lot about the choices leaders make; what they focus on, how they make decisions. We know when leaders’ communication is rooted in their values, because they are often more impassioned both in terms of what they say and how they say it. We pay particular attention to the leader who communicates like this, from the heart. 

The leader who communicates like this takes a risk and makes themselves vulnerable; we connect with leaders at a deeper level based on shared values than on similar behavioural preferences, because rapport lacks the aspect of mutual vulnerability which lies at the heart of trust. Research into long lasting, successful relationships of all sorts indicates that differences in personality (and therefore behaviour patterns) do not matter if values are aligned. We think values are more enduring, perhaps more reliable even than behaviour, and we look to understanding values as a way of believing in our leaders.

How does knowing your values help resolve this apparent contradiction?Consider this example. A team knows their leader has a strong value about personal development and the leader’s behaviour and decision-making is aligned with this value. They are transparent about providing the information people need. They are passionate about people being the best they can and give and take feedback. People are encouraged to attend courses, share insights and learning. 

Mistakes are not punished if they are not repeated. Then recession hits and budgets and costs have to be controlled. How will the leader react? Do they ditch the training budget? Do they find a way to stimulate development in different ways? How do they communicate their solution to this difficult situation?

The leader with this value about personal development will be both authentic and adaptive. They might, for example:

  • negotiate with their boss to protect the training budget (but change their behaviour to make a clear business case rather than their usual impassioned plea)
  • continue to provide opportunities to learn by delegating projects with development objectives for the managers (but also being more demanding about growth targets and giving candid feedback about progress, and the lack of it)
  • invest more of their time in coaching people and setting up co-coaching groups (but focusing this in fixing short- term business issues, rather than career or other topics)
  • establish a ‘library’ of low-cost resources — webinars, articles, YouTube links (but insisting people to give as well as take)

If the leader loses the argument and the budget, they will still try to stimulate other zero-cost forms of learning such as ‘lunch and learns’. In other words, they will remain true to their value despite the changing situation, even if their behaviour adapts to try to influence key stakeholders in the decision-making process and resolve some of the contextual issues.

What they will not do is change their behaviour to sugar coat the reality of zero development budget for the team. This would be contrary to their values even if they may be expected as a senior manager to do so. But nor will they continue to put money into the development of their team by organising offsites and training courses (the pattern of behaviour from the past)

This is like the host who always produces great food. Even if money is tight, they do a great recipe with much less exotic, cheaper ingredients, which perhaps takes twice as long as usual to prepare, because their commitment to great cooking remains intact. Their guests know that even if it is bread and water, the bread will be home-baked, and the water will be collected from a local spring with legendary health-giving properties. This effort and consistent commitment to a clear value in their behaviour in turn influences the behaviour of the guests; effort tends to produce effort in others. The guests enjoy the bread and water, the party is a success.

What should leaders do?

"The unexamined life is not worth living".   


In summary what should you as a leader do to avoid being either misjudged as untrustworthy or incompetent? How do you resolve the authentic / adaptable paradox?

Showing who you are starts with knowing who you are. Not just your personality — your preferences, comparative strengths, and weaknesses — but also your values, what you believe in and what you stand for, where you ‘draw the line’. This is difficult sometimes in rapidly moving environments which demand the leaders’ attention 24/7. However, this is the baseline of personal investment which all leaders make in themselves, sometimes consciously, sometimes because circumstances have forced a degree of self-reflection. Plato’s remark is particularly true for those who would lead.

When you face different people or difficult situations, you need to be clear about what you want to achieve and adapt your behaviour to do this. Facing a tough, fact-minded audience you do the research even though this is not your personal preference. Trying to decide about whether to lay people off in a crisis you think about the long-term future of the organisation even though you are not great at strategic thinking. But you only adapt up to a certain point; your values might mean you also highlight the social consequences of indiscriminately firing people and present plans for downsizing that protects the dignity of staff you have to let go. And you do so even if this risks antagonising others. Leading takes moral courage (aka integrity, sticking to your values). C.S. Lewis wrote that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point”

Behavioural consistency is not ultimately the aim. Congruence with a set of values is a better goal. Congruence is about meaning, behaving in a way that communicates clear purpose and values. A leader who was 100% consistent in their behaviour, if it were possible, would risk being dull or only appealing to a rather narrow church. Leaders whose behaviour, though adaptive, does not betray their values can be seen as both competent and trustworthy


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