woman authenticity identity - technical expert to leader

From technical expert to leader: a question of identity

‘I have spent many years in the field managing complex problems and witnessing all sorts of social injustice. I don’t want to, nor should I have to, spend my time schmoozing and ***-kissing to get funding for my team and our work.’


‘I am an implementer – I make things happen! My work should speak for itself!’


‘I know I should have been promoted by now, but I don’t have time to build a case. There is important work to be done – if I didn’t do this, who would? It wouldn’t get done.’


Would it surprise you to know that these themes come up more often than not when intervening with women working in global development? Particularly women who have come for coaching with the express goal of advancing in their profession. Moving from technical expert to leader can most definitely raise questions of identity and authenticity.

Leadership transitions

Career advancement – particularly leadership transition – is also about identities; specifically, about shifting identities. Leadership transitions require a person to be adaptable, and to change – say, from being a technical expert to being a leader of technical experts, or from being a service provider to a leader of service providers. These shifts require the assumption of different responsibilities, expectations, skills and competences – in essence, moving beyond your comfort zone. At the same time, such transitions invoke an equally potent impulse to protect your old, comfortable identity – as the technical expert, or the implementer – or the ‘old’ self.

These two impulses – to change and yet remain the same – often occur simultaneously, giving rise to the question of authenticity. So, what is authenticity?


Authenticity – definitions (and limitations!)

Authenticity is popularly defined as some manifestation of the following: being true to yourself; transparency/coherence between what you say and do, and/or being true to your values.

LSE Professor Ibarra, author of The Authenticity Paradox warns against overly simplistic definitions of authenticity, arguing that these can limit your growth and impact as a leader.  For example, if authenticity is defined as: ‘Being true to self’ – which self are we referring to? Ibarra says,

We have many selves, depending on the different roles we play in life. We evolve and even transform ourselves through experience in new roles. How can you be true to a future self that is still uncertain and unformed?

Additionally, being overly transparent is not always realistic, nor prudent. A leader who shares everything they think and feel can lose credibility with staff, especially if they are not yet proven as leaders. And, whilst values are important – maintaining ‘old’ values from the past can take us in the wrong direction.

If authenticity is seen as an unwavering sense of self – that very definition of your “self” can arguably limit you. And, if you are being your authentic self just as you are, what happens when you have to step outside your comfort zone or fulfil new duties?


The Authenticity Paradox revisited…

According to Professor Ibarra, you can experience an ‘authenticity paradox’ at transitional moments in your career when there is a perceived choice between being yourself (e.g. a technical expert) and doing what it takes to succeed (e.g. self-promotion to increase visibility and/or to leverage resources, etc.). This is underscored by an ambivalence about doing those activities that don’t necessarily appeal to you. This perception often leads to rigid, rather than experimental, behaviour that is neither your ‘true self’ nor accomplishes what you are trying to achieve.

In essence, the very things that challenge your sense of self are the ones that teach you the most about effective leadership. Authenticity is a process, rather than a product. A journey, rather than a destination.

How far are you willing to challenge the way you see yourself?


From technical expert to leader: experiment, learn and grow…

Leading is a relational, hands-on activity! In other words, you need to get out there and practise, experiment and take chances. To do this, it helps to have an open frame of mind and be open to more possibilities and learning. Here are some tips for helping you to experiment and figure out what is right for you and your leadership:

1) Embrace yourself as a work in progress

By constantly developing and evolving your professional identity through practice, experimentation and learning, you can develop a personal leadership style that feels right for you, personally, as well as meeting your organisation’s needs.

2) Be unlimited

You are much more than the sum of your parts. The labels you give yourself – or that others give you – can limit you. If you’re told you’re a ‘technical expert’ or consider yourself only to be ‘an implementer’ – this may, even unconsciously, affect your willingness to step outside that role. Remember that when transitioning to leadership it is often about moving from a technical expert to leader. You are more than your identity as you currently perceive it – be your whole ‘unabridged’ self!

3) Experiment

Experiment with a new behaviour or style. Volunteer for a new project or task force, interact with new and different colleagues – experiment with new ways of getting things done. Experimenting with your identity – your sense of self – allows you to find the right approach for yourself and your organisations. The reality is that people learn, develop – and change – who they are, through experience, practice and experimentation.

4) Beg, borrow and steal

You learn from other people’s behaviours, styles and ways of being. Model other leaders and see what works for you – and for your staff. You don’t grow by theory and introspection alone, but by trying out different leadership styles and behaviours in practice. You can be selective in the elements you take from others, and adapt, personalise and improve them. Remember, authenticity is not something innate or intrinsic to oneself – it changes and evolves with you.

5) Make it a habit to make yourself uncomfortable

Taking an approach to authenticity that involves experimentation and adaptation involves doing things that don’t come naturally. This can be uncomfortable and make you feel inauthentic – even like an ‘imposter’. But it’s only when you step outside your comfort zone that you learn. To be a better leader, you need to challenge your ‘normal’ and do things that your sometimes rigidly-defined ‘authentic self’ would ordinarily not do.

How could you experiment in your job, to develop yourself as a leader?

Developing as a leader is about experimenting with your ‘selves’ as you find out what is right for the new challenges and circumstances you face – and keeping an open mind allows you to experience more possibilities. Leading effectively requires you to develop and grow – and to allow your current ‘authenticity’ to be challenged, tested and expanded. Being an authentic leader means constant evolution as you move from technical expert to leader.

…leaders can be made more effective – if they are offered the right tools for learning. Such deep learning, however, goes even beyond using the right tools. It is a process that isn’t necessarily linear and smooth; rather, it is a journey full of surprises and moments of epiphany. – Daniel Goleman

I invite you to take a moment or two to reflect on your career transitions and how they shape your leadership identity.

By Palena Neale, in conjunction with the WILD Network’s Forum to Advance Women’s Leadership in the International Development Sector, an annual event taking place May 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. Join us!

And please stay in touch…

Email me: palena@unabridgedleadership.com

Website: www.unabridgedleadership.com 

LinkedIn: Palena Neale

Twitter: @PalenaNeale