Unsolicited Advice from a “True-to-Selfer”

I’ve been doing a lot of homework to prepare for a new job as Director of Equity and Inclusion at an independent school here in Los Angeles. I’ve thumbed through magazines, books, and online resources to get a read on the organizational culture of the school as well as the culture of independent schools, more broadly. And I’ve read through a handful of articles from the Harvard Business Review for straightforward advice on navigating a senior leadership position at a new workplace.  As I dove into HBR’s online “Professional Transitions” section, I came across an article published in March 2018 entitled “The Authenticity Paradox,” which promised to demonstrate “how leaders can develop an ‘adaptively authentic’ style.” Intrigued, I watched the accompanying video in which the narrator drew a stark distinction between two leadership types: “chameleons,” who “pick up” and “try on” different personalities as they move through their day and interact with different sets of people; and “true-to-selfers,” who largely remain, well, true to self, regardless of context. 

The narrator dutifully records pros and cons for chameleons, who “adapt naturally” and “advance quickly,” but, alas, can be perceived as “disingenuous” and “manipulative.” By contrast, the narrator finds only faults with true-to-selfers, who “stick with comfortable behaviors” and “express what they really think and feel,” all of which “gets them into trouble.” Though the author ultimately suggests that both sets of leaders adopt a “playful mindset,” the recommended approach aligns better with how chameleons operate, more comfortable as they are with “trying on new selves” than the true-to-selfers, a crowd for whom such a thing would be, frankly, anathema. And while there was a lot to appreciate in the article, for instance its emphasis on the need to constantly evolve as a leader, I nevertheless found the advice vexing on a few counts, not least of all because I am, and have long been, an unrepentant true-to-selfer. How could a worldview like mine – which places a high premium on the values of honesty, integrity, and authenticity – possibly square with one positing that the most successful leaders are adept at trying on and discarding different personalities “like clothing”? (Yes, that’s a direct quote.)

Personal qualms aside, however, the article also overlooks how female leaders, and especially women of color in leadership roles, are often caught in a double-bind. As Princeton psychologist Susan T. Fiskeand others have demonstrated, women, in general, walk the proverbial tight-rope between either competence or likeability. In the workplace, studies have shown that women must go the extra mileto appear both warm and competent if they are to be as influential as their male peers, who need only appear competent. Moreover, recent findings summarized by social psychologists Rachel Connors and Fiske in the APA Handbook on Psychology for Womensuggest how stereotypes about race and gender combine to put women of color in a variety of difficult positions in the workplace. For instance, though Black and Latina women struggle to be viewed as competent, they are considered assertive, even aggressive, which, if they can clear the competence hurdle, allows them more maneuverability at the negotiating table than either White or Asian women. Conversely, though White, Asian, and Asian-American women are perceived as competent, they are more likely to elicit punishment for assertiveness and self-promotion than Black female leaders (16). These considerations – about some WOC’s “natural” talents as leaders – would necessarily weigh heavily on their choice to adopt specific leadership mindsets and, as another HBR article notes, requires organizations to develop specific measures to ensure they actually make it into senior leadership roles.

Given my interests, I also wonder about the leadership styles available to those of us in the field of diversity, equity, and inclusion. More to the point, I can’t help but think that working people over, as chameleons do well, is at odds with what much of “the work” is all about. Within organizations, DEI work often requires a kind of moral clarity that chameleons, given how they operate, and perhaps even despite themselves, become increasingly estranged from. As they politick to advance their aims, trying on different selves to their advantage, they run the risk of developing a dislocated relationship with their true moral selves. Over time, this can become problematic for institutions who have invested in chameleon-like DEI leaders, especially if these individuals have also become the public face of the organization’s “good work.” That said, I understand well that meaningful change requires all kinds working together at all levels of an institution to change it for the better. But it doesn’t keep me from worrying about how much of themselves some mortgage away in the process of doing all that good work, about whether they get it all back, and most of all about how many they may harm along the way. 

Over the years, I’ve often approached mentors with this leadership conundrum that uniquely besets women of color in charge of DEI work within organizations, and I’ve received a range of responses, some helpful, some not. While a handful simply advised me to play the game “using everything you’ve got,” others offered me more helpful advice that I hope to pass on here. Rather than encourage me to hide my beliefs in order to manipulate others and maneuver the system, they instead began from a different premise. My honesty was valuable, they said, which made it an offering, a gift, both to others and to an organization. As such, they encouraged me to protect it, share it wisely, and with some, sparingly. In essence, they said, you don’t owe any individual or organization your whole truth, especially if they refuse to honor it in its entirety. 

Since then, I’ve worked hard to develop a certain “opacity” of self, a term first brought to my attention by a colleague of color and which I think perfectly encapsulates the above. It derives from a concept set forth by French-Martinican writer and philosopher, Edouard Glissant, who, in 1990, described opacity as an individual strategy for resisting colonizing attempts. According to Glissant, in Western thought, the basis for understanding people and ideas is “a requirement for transparency” on the part of that which is being understood, a transparency “which aims to reduce us” (189-191). Conversely, opacity is a strategy that marginalized individuals may choose to adopt in a hostile system in order to resist being known, being used. 

Cultivating opacity as opposed to a playful mindset may sound like semantics. But, for me, it offers a strengths-centered approach to the professional obstacles women of color face as DEI leaders, and it’s consistent with my values. Rather than cast honesty as a handicap, the theory of opacity instead allows us to begin from the premise that honesty is strength, and it demands that women of color find ways to nurture and protect their value from both individuals and institutions that may co-opt and use or else devalue and dismiss. The trick, then, for those afflicted with true-to-selfhood is less about learning how to play others. Rather, it’s about finding an organization that cultivates a culture of candor and transparency, that rewards ethical behavior, an organization, that is, that sees truth for what it is – strength.

The Mentorship That Wasn’t