Strategic Authenticity – Five Key Issues for Managers

‘Fake news’ – probably the key phrase of 2017 – has re-emphasised the need for ‘authenticity’ at all levels of society. This includes the world of work.

Yet strategic authenticity isn’t always a desirable trait in a manager, especially if their natural behaviour is unpleasant. So says Stefan Stern, visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, a business journalist and a former Financial Times (FT) management columnist.

The co-author of ‘Myths of Management’, Stern argues that to be effective, managers need to adopt different styles for different situations.

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Fake Managers

“People have had enough of ‘fake news’ but what about ‘fake managers’ – those bosses who put on an act when they’re with you but then behave differently when you’re not there?” says Stern.

According to Stern, writing for Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, ‘just being yourself’ is an inadequate strategy to achieve the complicated task of managing and leading people.

Market conditions vary and situations change, he says. Good managers adapt their behaviour, and how they come across, to fit the situation they’re in. Is that being ‘fake’, or is it simply effective versatility?

Mark Snyder, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, has been exploring this question of behavioural versatility or, as he calls it, ‘self-monitoring’.


Snyder says that high self-monitors are conscious of their image and may try to appear more confident than they truly are. When this works they may seem deft and in control. But they can also arouse suspicion that they’re simply insincere and inauthentic.

Conversely, low self-monitors may insist on ‘being themselves’ whether that’s helpful or not. They can also remain stuck in a limited pattern of behaviour – even when the world around them has changed and calls for something more.

‘This is who I am’ may sound like a confident – even a defiant – statement. But if that person is in the wrong place at the wrong time that particular brand of authenticity will be of little use.

Stern says that effective managers adapt their behaviour, and how they’re perceived, to fit the situation they’re in. He adds, “Is that being fake, or is it simply effective versatility?”

A Broader Array of Responses

How can managers develop a broader array of responses?

In their book, ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones say that managers should ‘know and show themselves’ – that is, not be too distant or mysterious. However, Goffee and Jones go on to say that bosses need to be ‘authentic chameleons’. They must be true to themselves, but also adaptable.

They advise leaders to ‘be yourself, more, with skill.’ That is, show more of yourself, but with sensitivity to the situation. Accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.

Lifelong Learning

The need for lifelong learning applies to management style as well as technical knowledge. As the coaching guru, Marshall Goldsmith, has put it, “What got you here won’t get you there”.

There’s no guarantee that old tricks will succeed a new and more demanding situation or job. Thoughtful managers will want to improve their repertoire of interpersonal and presentational skills.

In her 2015 book, ‘Act like a leader, think like a leader’, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra is deliberate about the title’s word order. According to her, that’s not because you have to ‘fake it until you can make it’ but because, sometimes, you have to ‘experiment until you learn.’

Managers need to ‘move forward to a future version of yourself that has a core, but that also has learned new things and grown.’

Ibarra says, “The pursuit of strategic authenticity can be wholly self-centred. People you manage don’t want ‘full transparency’.

“They want you to behave like there’s some kind of interdependence, and that you have to work with people. It’s not just about being yourself. It’s about creating productive working relationships. It’s not just about you.”

Five Issues of Strategic Authenticity

Stern says that would-be successful managers and, especially, leaders should consider:

  • ‘Just be yourself’ is bad advice. Which ‘self’ are you talking about? Managers must play many different roles in the same working week.
  • Strategic authenticity isn’t necessarily a virtue. No-one wants an authentic ego-maniac. There may be aspects of your personality that would be better hidden.
  • Stay true to your values – not to the way you behave. Adapt your behaviour to fit the situation.
  • Wrong person, wrong job, wrong time? Then move on. Authenticity can’t help you if you’re in an unsuitable role – nor can pretending to be what you’re not.
  • Personal growth is more important. It’s not inauthentic to grow and become a different, better person. A ‘growth mindset’ allows you to imagine becoming more.

For further insights from the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance, visit