Can leaders be authentic and adaptable?

Being true to yourself is a leadership strength — unless it makes you resistant to change.

Authenticity has become a favorite buzzword among business leaders — but there’s often disagreement about what, exactly, this core leadership characteristic entails. And the various definitions often fly in the face of other important leadership traits such as adaptability. After all, leaders who value “being true to themselves” may retreat to familiar behaviors rather than embrace change and uncertainty. Worse, authenticity can even become a crutch for leaders who simply want to avoid change altogether.

So why is authenticity so important in leadership? According to a CEO survey we conducted in partnership with the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, authentic leaders provide an appropriate level of transparency that, in turn, fuels trust. And according to survey respondents, the difference between CEOs who feel “successfully authentic” from those who “have difficulty remaining true to themselves” is an overriding sense of purpose.

This makes sense; purpose-driven leaders are better equipped to lead through influence as opposed to authority, allowing them to cultivate strong, empowered teams. In research and interviews conducted for our new book, Accelerating Performance, we studied how purposeful leaders energize those around them to get things done — and we found that leaders who mobilize other people to achieve great things have a marked advantage over leaders who don’t.

That’s all well and good, but it brings us back to the basic question: How does one develop their authenticity? (Or is that a contradiction in terms?)

The truth is that, at some stage or another, every leader struggles with the concept of authenticity and his or her purpose. Building trust-driven relationships is easier said than done. Several self-directed development activities can be of use in helping to identify — and sharpen — one’s own sense of purpose.

  • Make a list of what you consider to be your core values. For each, ask “Why is this important to me?” Then ask four more times. Capture insights from this exercise and clarify what your values really are. There are several online value lists and surveys — for example, this list by James Clear — that can be helpful.

  • Ask yourself what your personal values mean at work, what type of situations/individuals you are most likely to find challenging, and how you can best react to such challenges.

  • Identify an issue where you are not aligned with your company’s leaders. Consider what value would be added by your willingness to have an honest conversation with them about your thoughts.

Once you’ve developed a stronger understanding of your purpose, experiment with several behaviors to bulk up your “authenticity muscles” while also ensuring you’re open to change:

  • Show vulnerability by frequently talking about what really matters to you and why.

  • Constructively challenge others’ behaviors by naming the impact they have on you: “When you do X, the impact on me is Y.”

  • Share how you are feeling with the team, for example: “I am feeling frustrated because . . .” or “I am feeling excited because . . .”

  • Make it a practice to articulate the “why” and the intent behind what you do and the decisions you make.

  • When making important decisions or entering important conversations, review your values and use them as a guide.

Authenticity and adaptability are not mutually exclusive — and leaders who understand their core purpose now will be better equipped to stay true to themselves and adapt, while better inspiring and energizing those around them.

This article was originally published on Thrive Global.