As a leader, is it better to be yourself, or to be who people expect you to be?
Even in an era where authentic leadership is lauded and the workplace which encourages all employees to "bring their full selves to work" has become the gold standard, it turns out the answer is not so cut and dry.
An international debate was sparked this week in response to a video that emerged of Finland's prime minister, Sanna Marin, at a dance party that she described as "boisterous."
Marin, who has achieved popularity around the globe, and who at times has been described by observers as effortlessly cool, has been cast by some as irresponsible and immature, and by others as admirably authentic.
An underlying driver of Marin's controversy is the disproportionate influence of her age and gender on her critics' view of her.
In 2019, at age 34, Sanna Marin became the world's youngest prime minister, and today at 36, she is still among the world's youngest. While her youthfulness and success as a world leader, who happens to be female, has largely been a point of global pride and celebration (it's been a clarion call to other women and young people aspiring to leadership and has lent her unique credibility to influence the global conversation around work-life balance) it has also fueled criticism of her notably trendy wardrobe and propensity for partying.
During an internationally syndicated press conference in response to the most recent criticism, Marin defended her actions and even agreed to take a drug test, at the urging of some in Finish parliament, which has since come back negative.
Unapologetic and dismissing the whole affair as a non-issue, Marin said, "I believe that Finnish society and its resilience can withstand me singing and dancing with my friends."
When it comes to authenticity for leaders, Marin's story illustrates three common truths:
Very little that's intended to be private stays private.
In her defense, Marin said that "These videos are private and filmed in a private space. I resent that these became known to the public."
For better or worse, as we have transitioned fully into a world of 24/7 media, the normalization of public outrage from at least one population on almost every topic, and virtually every individual being granted a platform, with many feeling compelled to document every element of their lives on social media, there is almost no such thing as true privacy anymore, even amongst friends.
This means you should expect that anything you do or say in one setting can, and likely will, eventually make its way to other settings, especially those settings where it will ignite the greatest controversy.
It may not always be dance moves, but the same philosophy applies equally across the board.
In 2016, when a Carrier executive became curt with employees who interrupted him while he was informing their group that their jobs were being outsourced to Mexico, he may have believed that he was only talking to those in the room. But despite there being a no cell phone policy on the factory floor where the announcement was made, iPhone video of the talk was all over the internet and on news programs the next day. The 95 percent of his comments which were supportive and appropriate were drowned out woefully by the 5 percent that caught fire.
Always ask yourself when you begin to say or do something in front of a group, how would I feel if I saw this as a headline in tomorrow's paper?
True authenticity comes at a cost.
Authenticity is a leadership quality, in part, because it's not easy. Sticking to the script, no matter how detached it may feel, is actually a lot easier.
Common 21st-century logic is that vulnerability in leadership is a strength. But how vulnerable is too vulnerable? That part is less clear. A little bit can make you more relatable to your colleagues and help you earn the trust of your teams. But too much can be perceived as uncertainty, weakness, or an inability to lead.
Similarly, youthful energy is viewed positively. However, youthful decisions -- as Marin can attest -- are not.
Committing to authenticity as a leader will benefit those around you and inspire trust. But it's a guarantee that not everyone will always love you or agree with you. Accepting criticism and moving forward anyway to do what you believe is right is a central part of leadership.
It's a cost you should factor in.
Authenticity is a Catch-22 for minority leaders.
As I've written previously, authenticity often represents an even greater challenge for minority leaders.
For instance, as an underrepresented leader, you might be reluctant to be your true self for fear that it will feel too foreign to others who don't share your experiences. Sometimes included in this is a fear of reinforcing stereotypes when you are the only or one of the few people like you at your level, in your role, or your workplace.
Video of a middle-aged white man at a dance party might be seen as silly, while a young female in the same setting is often quickly sexualized. In Marin's case, the question of drug use was also raised, despite her assertion that she's never done drugs in her life; an accusation that felt all too familiar to many people of color.
It's important to keep in mind that while authenticity is a critical quality of leadership, it can be more difficult for some people than others, and it always comes with inherent risks.
When considering the culture we are creating on our teams or in our workplaces, not only should we be thoughtful about how we show up personally, we should also keep in mind the space we're creating for others to be themselves.
In the question of whether it's better to be yourself or to be who people expect you to be, the answer depends on your objective. There are times when being the first or only necessitates showing others that you're capable, and there are times when having more latitude allows you to create more space for those around you.
While I'm sure Sanna Marin is not enjoying the current news cycle, the young prime minister's clarity of response and commitment to who she is has fueled an international conversation that creates space for each of us to be a bit more authentic in our spheres.