A Leader’s Dilemma: Balancing Performance & Authenticity

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Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.

Brené Brown, Professor, Social Worker, and Author 

Several clients have recently raised similar concerns about leading authentically amid widespread uncertainty regarding the future.

How the current macroeconomic climate impacts leaders is that it can create conflicting priorities and ever-changing expectations in the form of:

  • Constant reorgs and rebuilding
  • Moving targets, priorities, and goals
  • Disruption of personal growth and development

This can make planning, messaging, motivating ourselves, and empowering others tricky. 

A common dilemma conscious leaders face (even if they’re not officially managing people) is balancing performance with their authenticity.

What does it mean to be a leader in a VUCA world? 

In a volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, which seems to be the world we live in now, leaders are expected to perform, with increasing velocity. 

Leadership styles that are often rewarded in a VUCA world demonstrate:

  • Speed
  • Agility
  • Outcome

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with focusing on speed, agility, and outcome when it makes sense, it becomes insidious, when coupled with an implicit message to perform at all costs.

The pitfall of hyper-focusing on performance is that success by all means necessary is a formula that demands personal sacrifice. Not only of time and energy but often also the most important things we cherish and value.

If our mindset is “to win at all costs” – it’s easy to lose ourselves and our authenticity in our work, if we’re not intentional about the kind of leader or human we want to be. 

Success by all means necessary is a formula that demands personal sacrifice… of the most important things we cherish and value.

What does losing one’s authenticity look like? 

An authentic leader leads with integrity and stays true to their values.

As leaders, we want to be authentic because authenticity inspires trust from others, but more importantly, of ourselves. This inner trust is also called confidence. 

For most, it’s easiest to be authentic during calm waters. 

The true test of authentic leadership arises when pressure mounts: Do we compromise our values, conform to the status quo, and sacrifice our well-being or that of our team?

For example, what do you do when:

  • your success requires you to push a product or a message you don’t believe in?
  • you receive feedback from leadership to adopt a directive, top-down style when your natural style is more collaborative and empowering?
  • you’re asked to prioritize the success or well-being of the company over your clients, your team or your own?

For many, these occurrences happen daily in the workplace. Unless we intentionally choose our authenticity, it’s easy to conform and compromise our values in the name of meeting performance expectations.

When pressure mounts: Do we compromise our values, conform to the status quo, and sacrifice our well-being or that of our team?

The biggest impact of losing oneself:

Dr. Christina Maslach, who created the widely-used Maslach Burnout Inventory, defines burnout as the “erosion of the soul” caused by the deterioration of one’s values, dignity, and spirit. 

Burnout often stems from a loss of authenticity at work – when we no longer have a voice in what we do, how we do it, and what it means to us.

This unrewarding cycle of disconnect with no support drains our purpose and well-being.

The challenge of maintaining authenticity as a leader 

If authenticity were easy in the workplace, burnout wouldn’t be a global epidemic.

Part of why demonstrating our authenticity is challenging is because it requires:

  • Self-awareness – interest and curiosity to explore who we are, and our blind spots
  • Confidence – clarity of and trust in our abilities and value  
  • Courage – to confront disagreements, be disliked, and take a stand for what we believe

For many, it requires unlearning what was taught to us to get to our current level of success. 

Nonetheless, many have recognized the need to cultivate a different mindset to access the next level of accomplishment and holistic well-being that fosters a sense of fulfillment and longevity.

The new mindset and heart-set that enables authenticity does not require:

  • Work to be our core identity
  • Approval from others as a main motivator
  • Complicity in perpetuating a broken system 

Many have shared that the most gratifying aspect of adopting this new mindset is the sense of freedom it brings. However, the hardest part is the accountability it demands – specifically, having to ask ourselves: ‘What is my role and responsibility in creating this experience that robs me of my authenticity, as well as perpetuating this experience for others?’

Burnout often stems from a loss of authenticity at work – when we no longer have a voice in what we do, how we do it, and what it means to us.

Embodying authentic leadership: where to start


It’s hard to be authentic if you don’t know who you are.

Understand who you are and your authentic leadership style by understanding your:

  • VALUES that drive decision-making and help prioritize what’s important
  • VISION & PURPOSE that inspires meaning and motivates you
  • DEFINITION OF SUCCESS that allows you to aim for better instead of more
  • SENSE OF SELF AND PRIDE outside of work, so you’re more than our job and title
  • STRENGTHS, GIFTS, AND GAPS that you can lean on, nurture and develop

Social support

Being true to yourself is not easy, especially when your authenticity goes against the norm. However, the relationships you cultivate become your support system, where you can express yourself freely and gain different perspectives.

The more significant a relationship is, the more you want to ensure that you share core values and feel supported in your authenticity. People in your life such as:

  • Significant partner
  • Close friends 
  • Boss
  • Mentor/Sponsor
  • “Work bestie”

Whole-body Intelligence

We’re trained to over-index our left brain in modern society, even though we were created with a whole brain that includes two equal-sized hemispheres. This means we lose out on seeing the greater picture when we ignore data from our right hemisphere, and our gut, heart, and whole body. To counter this tendency, we can intentionally seek data and wisdom from our entire being, allowing us to broaden our perspectives and discern our best path forward.

Together, self-awareness, social support, and your whole-body wisdom will clarify and help you embody your authentic leadership style so that you can better:

  • Prioritize what’s meaningfuldelegate and eliminate all other things 
  • Set boundaries – by expressing yourself and letting people know where you stand
  • Challenge norms – when the conventional or status quo no longer works
  • Be vulnerable – recognize when you’re operating inauthenticity and adjust as need
  • Listen to your intuition – include data from your gut, heart, and inner knowing 
  • Apply emotional intelligence – your attunement with your authenticity, allows you to connect, relate to, and build trust with others in a genuine and productive way 
  • Promote psychological safety – by encouraging others to embody their whole selves

These capabilities allow us to move through VUCA waters while balancing doing our best work with maintaining our inner peace. 

Conclusion: make the unconscious, conscious

Often, the first step to growth is awareness.

To increase self-awareness, identify what you’re either implicitly or explicitly encouraged or rewarded to do to belong and succeed. 

Next, compare these expectations to who you want to be as a human, what’s important to you, and where your true allegiance lies. 

The delta or gap in that comparison presents an opportunity to respond authentically, lead, and do your best work while being true to yourself.