There’s a lot of talk in diversity circles about authenticity and bringing your true self to work. As an openly gay man, I know how difficult but also how rewarding that is, especially for people in a leadership position.
While leaders often fear the vulnerability that comes with being honest about who we are, I experienced the opposite effect: By doing so, we become less vulnerable and more impactful.
The Long Climb
Which isn’t to say it’s easy. My own experience has at times been a hard climb. When McKinsey hired me out of university as a consultant, it was my dream job. But along with the position came the decision of whether to come out to my new employer.
Throughout my student years, I’d remained in the closet, and the hiding away of so much of myself had taken its toll. Simple aspects of everyday life felt high-risk. Casual Monday morning conversations with friends and classmates left me with a sense of dread. Is it OK to talk about my boyfriend? To share that we’d gone away for the weekend? You become invested in lies, and you always feel vulnerable. It’s an immense stress on your soul.
Leading Openly Creates Strong Followers
Having created so many problems for myself by being closeted in college, I made a silent pact to be out at McKinsey from day one. When I joined the firm in 1993, I became its first openly gay consultant in Germany. I’ve been out ever since.
I can now trace a direct link between being honest about myself and successful leadership. Leadership means having a view of how to shape the future and inspiring others to follow you. By being open about who you are, you can create the foundation for encouraging that connection with your team. I truly believe that people are quick to spot leaders who try to represent themselves as something they’re not.
In my case, I offered something genuine about my life to team members and colleagues, and invariably, their response affirmed that they saw me as someone with courage and integrity —the very qualities we want in leaders. Not everyone supported me being openly gay, but they saw me as real and relatable.
A Universal Leadership Challenge
Authenticity is a challenge for every leader, whether or not you’re gay. The vulnerability of revealing our authentic selves can feel counter-intuitive to what we’re trying to accomplish at the C-suite level. But to skeptics, I’ll point out that because openness gives us additional points of commonality, it can generate business value.
I once visited a client’s CFO who had the rainbow flag hanging on the wall behind her chair. We wound up partnering on a mutually beneficial deal, and while her allyship wasn’t the only factor, it became a shared bond that made our negotiations more productive.
I don’t want to cast openness as a fairy tale. There can be setbacks. At one point, I reported to a boss whose homophobia hindered a close connection between us. I eventually found a way to report to a different executive. The lesson is to focus on the areas in which you can succeed and don’t get held up by forces you can’t change.
You’ll know when your authenticity is succeeding. During an unannounced visit to a delivery center, I spotted a cubicle decorated for a wedding and walked over to offer my congratulations to the associate. He didn’t know who I was, but he smiled and proudly pointed to a photo of himself and his husband, and said, “We have this out CFO who sends a wonderful message.”
More often, the rewards are smaller in nature. An open and authentic leadership style allows employees to bring forward both the bad news and the good, and it encourages better buy-in for programs and strategies.
Simply put, faking it doesn’t work — and interferes with the ability to lead. While authenticity is by no means the only quality that enables leaders to make a difference — there’s also integrity, fairness and commitment, among others — being approachable and able to share enables us to have a greater impact. For me, it’s allowed team members and colleagues to assess me and conclude “I can work with this guy,” and that’s the highest praise a leader can get.
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