Picture shows Donna Whitehead smiling with the words 'My Career, My Way'

Am I really that authentic?

blog career advice leadership Nov 18, 2023

The first time I was introduced to the concept of authentic leadership was during my first period at the University of South Wales (2012 to 2015 as head of school and deputy dean before moving to UWE and then London Met and then coming back to USW in late 2021). It was by Lucie Thomas who was the then organisational development manager. The penny dropped immediately and it’s been a focus of my development ever since.

As you would expect, there is much academic debate about what authentic leadership actually is; the focus of this blog is not to repeat this but instead to share my thoughts on how I have grappled with it. To keep things simple, I am going to accept that being authentic means to be true and open about oneself, including ones values and development journey. This sounds pretty straightforward but as you will see, it is still a hurdle for me in reality. Linked to this is the connection between being authentic and being an authentic leader. The two, it seems, are connected but not the same thing.

Until the conversation with Lucie, rather embarrassingly, my own leadership style hadn’t been something that I had thought about; instead I had followed the lead of others around me and learned by doing (and getting things wrong). When I was reflecting on the concept of authentic leadership with Lucie, I thought about the leaders in my career who I had felt most inspired by; they were ‘human’ and relatable; they brought their full self to work (or at least it seemed like they did); and without realising it at the time, I could see a bit of myself in them. For example, I remember Viv Kinnaird who was my Dean of Faculty at Sunderland University talking to me about applying for jobs when pregnant and with a young family. The fact that she had shared something ostensibly personal with me, and something that I was also experiencing, made me connect with her as a leader.

Following the conversations with Lucie, I made a commitment to myself to be more authentic at work in the future. Sounds easy, right? The problem is that I am only really comfortable being my full authentic self in environments where I feel like I belong.

For as long as I can remember, I have never felt as though I belonged in the academy. I suspect some will be surprised to hear this as I probably appear to be a perfect fit: I am white, well-educated, confident, and live what would be described as a middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps the disconnect is a reflection of my working-class upbringing in Hartlepool. Perhaps it is because I was the first in my family to go to university (and I went to my local university because the prospect of moving away was terrifying and more importantly, utterly unaffordable for my family). Or perhaps it’s just a chip on my shoulder. Regardless, me and my friends from back home still talk about being “just daft lasses from Hartlepool”. This is despite us all having successful careers. Being “just a daft lass from Hartlepool” is my identity and in all honesty, something I am proud of.

This feeling of not belonging, or being an outsider, regularly makes it difficult for me to be my true authentic self. It’s easier to masquerade as something I am not, in an attempt to fit in. Throughout my career I have been guilty of toning my accent down, talking about the sort of politics and travel that I have felt that others value, mirroring the language that others use, giving examples of my taste in music that aren’t really my taste in music, being guarded about my life outside of work, and not taking openly about my values and what is important to me and why.  

Essentially, I’ve been a magpie over the years, stealing experiences, knowledge and language from others that I can utilise to help me feel like I fit in. It feels similar to the experiences many of us will have had at school when we were desperate to wear the same shoes, coats and hairstyles. Power and safety is gleaned from similarity and not difference; those who were different risked marginalisation. 

I commit acts of inauthenticity less frequently now but I still can’t in all honesty say that I am my true authentic self at all times. If I can’t be authentic, how on earth do I be(come) an authentic leader? The examples of how I curate my presentation of self to feel like I fit in might be ostensibly small, but they are insidious in nature. They continue to infect me with uncertainty about myself. There is something vulnerable about sharing such small but significant (at least to me) things that make it easy for people to judge. If someone discovers all of the things that make me feel different, then perhaps I’ll be discovered as an imposter and asked to leave. I’m a rational person and so I know deep down that I am not going to be sacked for my music choice or my accent or even my occasional loose language but yet I still have to fight the feeling.  

Over the years, I have made progress in being my authentic self at work. I remind myself that being me is my super power. Being different is my superpower. Providing I can rely on my collection of learned behaviours, language and knowledge to bail me out of a full blown imposter syndrome attack then I am happy in the knowledge that I am more effective (and happier) as an individual and as a leader when I am being authentic.

I’ll share a recent small example of when I have been bravely authentic. I have to manage my mental health carefully and like many others, I don’t always feel OK. Until recently, if I needed to take a day off because of this, I would declare an upset stomach or something similar. On a recent mental health dark day that I needed to take off sick, I told my vice-chancellor and some of my colleagues the truth. It felt uncomfortable but I forced myself to do it. I have never shared this truth with a boss or peers until very recently. It feels progressive to be open about my mental health and it feels like I am enabling others to do the same.

Good progress, right? Ok, so here is another example where it’s less clear: it’s not uncommon for colleagues to comment on how I seem to have everything in control and have a good balance to my work and home life. Linked to this is that I am often recognised in a positive way for sending emails during standard working hours. This behaviour must suggest that I only work during normal working hours and therefore reinforce that I have a good work: life balance. This troubles me because I am clearly presenting an image that isn’t a true reflection (or at least not always a true reflection) of how I work. I routinely work out of normal office hours on evenings and weekends but I almost always delay delivery of emails to during standard office hours. I routinely don’t feel confident but I stand up and give the presentation I am expected to give without declaring that I feel like an imposter. Does doing these things make me inauthentic? Am I giving an impression of being in control when in reality I often feel out of control?

Reflecting on these two examples, I am left wondering whether the motivation for revealing the truth or reality is what matters. In sharing my mental health ups and downs my motivation is at least partially to normalise it for others to do the same. It is definitely easier for me to be authentic if I feel that it helps others; to do it because it is solely an act of self-kindness feels too indulgent.

In the case of being ostensibly inauthentic about my working patters, my motivation here is to protect colleagues from being burdened with an expectation that they should work excessively long hours. Does this makes my inauthenticity acceptable? And importantly, if it comes from a ‘good’ place, does it translate into being an authentic leader?

One final reflection: if I feel too vulnerable to be authentic all of the time despite my privileges, can you imagine how difficult it must be for those without privilege to do the same?

About the author:

Professor Donna Whitehead is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of South Wales (USW). As Deputy Vice-Chancellor Donna leads the university’s academic activities including leadership of the Faculty Deans, the Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, learning services, and student recruitment and marketing. Working with the Vice-Chancellor and the rest of the executive team, Donna's role is to ensure that the University’s ambitious 2030 strategy is delivered.

Prior to joining USW, Donna held roles as Deputy Vice-Chancellor at London Metropolitan University and Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean at UWE Bristol. Prior to this Donna was at USW as Head of School and Deputy Dean.