Why the Best Leaders are Also the Most Authentic
I attribute the positive impact I’ve been able to have on the teams I work with and the business itself on leading from a place of authenticity. Being openly gay in the workplace is an important part of that.
The concept of authenticity, and bringing your true self to work, has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. There is often a fear of showing vulnerability in leadership, leading many to feel as if they cannot be honest about who they truly are.
I have been fortunate to experience the opposite effect – being my authentic self has helped me feel less vulnerable and more impactful at work. As an openly gay man, I experienced the difficulty and immense reward that can come from this, particularly as a leader.
The stress around ‘authenticity’
Staying true to oneself in the workplace is not always easy and I’ve found it has often been a tough climb. When I was hired as a consultant by McKinsey out of university, I was thrilled to have my dream job. But I was then faced with the decision of whether I should be openly out in the workplace or do what many have done and refrain from being myself to avoid the judgment of others.
Remaining in the closet throughout my time as a student had taken its toll on me. Everyday life felt high-risk. Not knowing if I could discuss the life that I shared with my partner at the time made it difficult to truly connect with those around me. Casual Monday morning conversations left me unsure as to whether it was appropriate to bring up my personal life with my partner if, for example, we’d gone away for the weekend. The lies and vulnerability placed immense stress on my soul.
Leading with courage and integrity
My experience at university and the problems caused by being closeted led to me making a personal pact to be truly open about myself at McKinsey from day one. I became the firm’s first openly gay consultant in Germany when I joined in 1993. This experience of being able to be a truer version of myself in the workplace has been an undeniably positive one as my honesty meant I was able to truly feel connected to others around me, instead of feeling like a fraud.
The direct link between my own honesty and successful leadership is clear to me. Inspiring others to follow you and having a clear view of how to shape the future are key ingredients of leadership, and by being open about your identity, you encourage honest connection with your team which helps build a strong foundation. I truly believe that people are quick to spot leaders who try to represent themselves as something they’re not, and that lack of authenticity can lead to toxic workplace culture.
In my own situation, I found that being genuine about my life to my team members and colleagues led to them seeing me as someone with courage and integrity – qualities that are invaluable in leaders. Whatever their views on homosexuality may have been, everyone saw me as both real and relatable.
A leadership challenge for everyone
Regardless of your sexuality, exhibiting authenticity can be challenging for any leader. Our goals at the C-suite level may well feel at odds with being vulnerable about our authentic selves. To the skeptics, I’ll offer that the points of commonality that openness facilitates can generate real business value.
While working with a client’s CFO, I noticed a rainbow flag on the wall behind her chair. The mutual respect we quickly felt resulted in a successful partnership, which may not have been solely due to her allyship, but it was a shared bond that helped make negotiations more productive.
I won’t pretend that this process has always been easy. Due to my sexuality, I’ve faced my fair share of setbacks. For example, I once reported to a boss whose homophobia created a lot of problems. I eventually found a way to report to a different executive, choosing to focus on areas in which I could succeed, rather than getting caught up with forces I couldn’t change. But it was tough having to deal with a person who did not accept who I was as a person.
On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate to have had some amazing moments too, where it was clear to me that authenticity was the right choice in the grand scheme of things. On a visit to a delivery center, I noticed a cubicle decorated for a wedding and offered my congratulations to the associate. Unaware of who I was, he proudly showed me the photo of himself and his husband, saying, “we have this CFO who is out, and it sends a wonderful message.”
More often, rewards are smaller in nature. Employees who see open and authentic leadership feel more comfortable bringing forward both the bad news and the good, which can improve buy-in for programs and strategies. Not only this, but it encourages a positive workplace culture, one built on empathy and understanding.
The bottom line is faking it doesn’t cut it – and it can even interfere with the ability to lead. Authenticity isn’t the only quality that helps leaders make a difference. Integrity, fairness, commitment, and being approachable and able to share all help us to have a greater impact. My experience has shown me that my team members and other colleagues have concluded “I can work with this guy because I know who he is” and that’s truly the highest praise a leader can get.
By Jan Siegmund, Chief Financial Officer at Cognizant.