As a leader, is it better to be yourself, or to be better at what others expect you to do?
Even in an era where true leadership is praised and workplaces where all employees are encouraged to “go all in” have become the gold standard, the answer turns out not to be that simple.
This week sparked an international debate in response to a video that emerged of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin at a dance she described as “hilarious”. Cool, considered irresponsible and immature by some and admirably true by others.
A potential driver of Marin’s controversy is the disproportionate impact her age and gender have on how her critics view her.
In 2019, At 34, Sana Marin became the youngest prime minister in the world, and at 36, she remains one of the youngest prime ministers in the world. While her youth and success as a world leader (who happens to be a woman) is largely a focus of global pride and celebration (it’s a clarion call to other women and young people who aspire to leadership and gives her a unique credibility) to influence the global conversation around work-life balance) has also sparked criticism of her particularly fashionable dress and tendency to party.
Responding to recent criticism at a joint international press conference, Marin defended her actions and even agreed to a drug test at the urging of some in Finland’s parliament, which came back negative.
Unapologetic and dismissing the whole incident as a non-issue, Marin said, “I believe in Finnish society and its resilience that I can sing and dance with my friends.”
When it comes to leadership authenticity, Marin’s story illustrates three common truths:
There are very few private accommodations
In her defense, Marin said: “These videos are private and filmed in private spaces. I’m not happy that these are known to the public.”
For better or worse, as we have fully transitioned to a world of 24/7 media where at least one person’s public outrage is normalized on almost every topic, almost everyone has been given a platform that many feel Having to document every element of their lives on social media, there is almost no such thing as true privacy anymore, even among friends.
This means that you should expect that anything you do or say in one environment can and will likely end up in other environments, especially those that generate the most controversy.
It may not always be dance moves, but the same philosophy applies to all areas.
In 2016, when one of Carrier’s executives interrupted his staff while informing their team of their work, he became blunt and was outsourced to Mexico, where he probably thought he was just in Talk to those who are in the house. But despite the fact that the factory floor where the announcement was made had no policy on cellphone use, iPhone video of the conversation went viral on the internet and on news shows the next day. His 95% supportive and appropriate comments are sadly overwhelmed by 5% on fire.
When you start saying or doing something in front of a group of people, always ask yourself, If I saw this headline in tomorrow’s paper, what would I do How do you feel?
True authenticity comes from cost.
Authenticity is a leadership quality, in part because it’s not easy. Sticking to the script, no matter how detached it feels, is actually much easier.
The common logic of the 21st century is that a weakness in leadership is a strength. But how fragile is too fragile? That part is less clear. A little bit can make you more relevant to your colleagues and help you earn the trust of your team. But too much might be seen as uncertainty, weakness or inability to lead.
Likewise, youthful energy is seen as a positive. However, young decisions – as Marin can attest – are not.
Committing to authenticity as a leader will benefit those around you and inspire trust. But it guarantees that not everyone will always love you or agree with you. Accepting criticism and moving on to do what you think is right is a core part of leadership.
This is the cost you should consider.
Authenticity is a Catch 22 for minority leaders.
As I’ve written before, authenticity is often a bigger challenge for minority leaders.
For example, as an underrepresented leader, you may be reluctant to be your authentic self for fear of feeling too foreign to others who do not share your experiences. Sometimes there is a fear of reinforcing a stereotype when you are the only one or one of the few who likes you at your level, in your role, or in your workplace.
A middle-aged white man at a video dance might be seen as stupid, while a young woman in the same environment is often quickly sexualized. In Marin’s case, the issue of drug use has also been raised, even though she claims she has never used drugs in her life; an accusation all too familiar to many people of color.
It’s important to remember that while authenticity is a key quality of leadership, it can be harder for some people than others, and it always comes with inherent risks.
When thinking about the culture we create on a team or in the workplace, we should not only think about how we perform as individuals, we should also keep in mind that we are creating a space for others to be ourselves.
As to whether it is better to be yourself or to be who others expect you to be, the answer depends on your goals. Sometimes being first or only requires showing others what you are capable of, and sometimes having more freedom allows you to create more space for those around you.
And while I, Sanna Marin, really don’t like the current news cycle, the young Prime Minister’s clear response and commitment to who she is has driven an international conversation that has created a fortune for each of us space to make each of us more authentic in our field.