Reading contemporary leadership literature might lead one to believe that ‘integrity is the gold standard’. Many of us probably take that assumption for granted; I did myself until I read a Harvard Business Review article by INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra earlier this year.
Professor Ibarra looks at the case of Cynthia in The Authenticity Paradox. Cynthia had been promoted into a general manager role that markedly increased her direct reports. She was a strong believer in transparent, collaborative leadership and so told her new subordinates that she was very keen to succeed in the job but would need their help because she found the new responsibilities ‘scary’.
Her openness backfired because that admission lost her the credibility of a group who wanted and needed a confident leader. Cynthia was the type of person that Ibarra describes as a “true-to-self” leader. But to avoid undermining her leadership, she needed distance to get the job done, but learned that too late.
Ibarra also cites the case of Anne, a senior manager at a transport company, who had doubled revenue and redesigned core processes, but the broad-brush company chairman didn’t like her matter-of-fact reports and asked her to “step up, do the vision thing”. Anne thought the demand to be “inspirational” was placing form ahead of substance and refused to play on people’s emotions. She continued her reliance on facts and spreadsheets and failed to win the chairman as an ally.
Professor Ibarra’s cases reveal that true-to-selfers find it difficult to sell themselves to senior management.
Ibarra sees this malaise arising from an excessive insight into self, combined with a failure to develop what she calls ‘outsight’, a quality that can help in avoiding the “habitual behaviours that fence us in.”
Ibarra’s analysis of the integrity malaise is an illustration of one of the many paradoxes with which HR practitioners, acting as business partners, have to come to terms with.
Let me digress. One of the surprises at the national convention was the ways in which the keynote speakers came from very different perspectives to say similar things.
Lawyer Rabia Siddique told a deeply moving Iraq war story to the backdrop of the ‘ripple effect’ that comes from finding your voice and doing what you must do to be true to self. But she also cautioned against taking on fights you can’t win.
Professor Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic from University College London spoke about how the need to be confident seems inescapable. However, he showed that there is low correlation between confidence and competence, and looked at ways in which overconfidence can derail a leader.
Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke about the opportunities opening for HR practitioners in what they can bring to Australian business in the context of developments in Asia, and the dazzling advances in technology. In response to a question about resilience Julia Gillard said simply that if you know what your purpose is and have a strong sense of self, you can withstand considerable assaults on your decisions and on your person.
US board adviser and author Ram Charan and Dave Ulrich from the University of Michigan both made the point that, unlike many transactional HR functional roles, a CHRO needs the capacity to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, as well as the constant enigmas of paradox and mystery.
That brings us full circle to Ibarra, whose article leaves little doubt that coming to terms with the single integrity paradox is a convoluted but necessary journey for any business partner who wants to make an impact. And it’s just one paradox among many.
While none are amenable to simple solutions, business looks to HR business partners to find a way to make sense of them and turn them into a competitive advantage.