True to yourself

The fruitless, exhausting effort to be all things to all people

Just be yourself. Be true to yourself. Keep it real. Many leaders hold these adages in their minds as wishful thinking, something to embrace someday, once they make it big or retire. For now, they believe that they need to play multiple roles, tell their bosses, investors, clients or employees what they want to hear, and act strikingly different across different situations.

Though it’s true that a CEO needs to be multifaceted and possess a wide range of social skills, trying to act like someone else or to mimic others can take a toll. You may be laboring under this type of juggling effort. As the year winds down, you may have the opportunity to ponder where you are headed, personally and professionally. You may find it useful to realize the price involved in trying to reconcile your fragmented public and personal identity.

Not being yourself may lead to ethical lapses
In a 2010 Psychological Science article, researchers Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and Dan Ariely found that there are potential ethical acts associated with faking. Their experiments showed that subjects wearing counterfeit-brand sunglasses cheated more across multiple tasks than those wearing legitimate brands of the same sunglasses. Even though people choose counterfeit brands to improve their images, an unexpected by-product may be that in choosing a false image, the need to act consistent with one’s values dissolves. Similarly, maintaining a false image may chip away at your own integrity.
Not being yourself can be tiring
David Halberstam, in his 1972 book The Best and the Brightest, tells the following vignette:

Once, during the 1960 campaign against (Richard) Nixon, someone had asked Kennedy if he was exhausted, and he answered no, he was not, but he felt sorry for Nixon, he was sure Nixon was tired, “Why?” the friend asked. “Because I know who I am and I don’t have to worry about adapting and changing. All I have to do at each stop is be myself, But Nixon doesn’t know who he is, and so each time he makes a speech he has to decide which Nixon he is and that will be very exhausting.”

If you are juggling multiple personas, you may find it tiring to keep track of who sees which part of you. You may live in some fear that people from one part of your life (your spouse, mom or minister) will see you engaging in another version of yourself and be disappointed in you. If your employees see you as cynical, vulgar, whiny or moody with them and as gracious and upbeat with clients or upper management, they will lose respect for you. It may make sense to you, but others see it for what it is.

Not being yourself can alienate you from others

If you think that you are valued only for the front you put up, whether it means being capable of skills you don’t have, or being immune to pain, tiredness, or hurt feelings, you will end up alienated from the very people you wish to connect with. You will be sure that they either don’t understand you or don’t care about you – which may often be true, because you haven’t revealed your real self. They can only relate to the image you display.

Not being yourself delays real change

You may know that it would be beneficial to change behaviors and perspectives and make the changes be a genuine part of you. Perhaps you want to show a greater interest in your employees, or be a better listener with potential clients, or pull back on the micromanaging. But if rather than making the effort to effect real change from the inside out, you merely play the part of concerned boss or interested listener, then you not only risk coming across as insincere or lame, you also delay the possibility of real change.

The disclaimers

Numerous people use “being themselves” as an excuse to hold tenaciously to bad character traits, bad habits, and even harmful behaviors like bullying. There is no reason why a person cannot improve himself over the course of his life. The tired phrase “once a (crook, addict, etc.) always a (the same)” is heavily overused to explain prejudice against the reformed and to justify others not bothering to make an effort. What “being yourself” really means is not expending effort in deceiving yourself and others as to who you are and what you can do.

Being yourself does not mean acting exactly the same in every situation. Complex humans have many sides. They may be called upon to display their analytic, ambitious or tenacious side at work and show a very different side with their children, in their artistic pursuits, and with those in need. Being a person of many parts is not the same as being phony.

You have many things to consider during your year-end review. You may hope to make your product lines more congruent, or your marketing message more integrated, or the quality of your staff’s service more consistent. Why not take some time to do the same about yourself?

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the December 2012 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.