Our podcast: Authentic Leadership. Episode 1: What does 'authenticity' mean?

We speak to two experts on the value of authenticity and why it should matter to newsrooms and newsroom leaders.
8th May 2023

In this first episode of our Authentic Leadership mini-series we discuss what authenticity means in the context of newsroom leadership. We look at what challenges leaders from minority backgrounds face in staying true to themselves and thriving in the workplace.

The speakers

Host: Ramaa Sharma is an award-winning Digital Leader, Consultant and Executive Coach. Until recently she was the Senior Digital Editor in BBC News, driving digital transformation across the division of 8,000 journalists. She also worked with the BBC News Board to help facilitate a more diverse and inclusive newsroom. Prior to that Ramaa spent a decade of her career presenting and reporting across multiple BBC platforms, before moving into digital leadership. At the World Service, Ramaa pioneered the first ever digital leadership and social media courses for editors and executives on the World Service Board. In her time Ramaa also edited a number of award winning editorial and digital projects.  

Guest: Ruchika Tulshyan is a recognised media expert on inclusive leadership and workplace culture. She is the founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy practice, and is the best-selling author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. Prior to her work in this area Ruchika was an international business journalist.

Guest: Stéphane Mayoux is a coach and psychotherapist with interests in identity, culture, race, difference, and experience in trauma therapy. Before becoming a psychotherapist, Stephane worked for the BBC for nearly 25 years as a journalist and editor on radio and television, specialising in news about and for Africa.

The podcast

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The transcript

What authenticity means | Authenticity for wellbeing | Belonging and being 'othered' | Authenticity and impostor syndrome | How organisations should foster authenticity | Authenticity and inclusivity in journalism

What authenticity means 

Ramaa: So let's start with this term, ‘authenticity’, Stéphane. What does it mean?

Stéphane: Well, I guess I would like to look at it from a psychotherapy perspective to start with, whereby we are, it seems to me, a lot of people in therapy are, on a journey, on a quest to try and identify who they really are. What is their so-called real self, authentic self? Now I see and look at families a bit like I look at organisations in a way. As a child, we all need to adapt to the environment. And some of those strategies are beautifully inventive and creative, and they tend to work in the main. At the same time, they add layers of what I would describe our core, who we really are, and as we grow up, depending on the environment, again, we hide this core, we adapt, and the strategies become like a heavy coat we carry along, that may diminish our spontaneity, our real self. Again, those strategies are very, very creative. The question often is in adult life, whether they are still relevant and still appropriate for the present.

Ramaa: So why does it matter in leadership?

Stéphane: Well, I guess, I suppose if it matters to every one of us, it's going to matter to leaders as well. I guess this ‘heavy coat’, as I just said, tends to diminish our spontaneity and the way we connect with others, the way we relate, the way possibly as a leader, we are going to connect with teams and staff and peers and bosses. And the most powerful way to relate to another is to be oneself, I believe, without which it seems we are going to be spotted as inauthentic, as unreal, as playing games. And if a leader is after performance, I think being oneself, one true self, with respect and humility and hopefully hope and ambitions, if one can be one's true self, I think it's going to work better for me as a leader.

Ramaa: As you were speaking I was thinking, as a child, you’re wanting to adapt to belong to your family, to be close to your parents and adolescence and adulthood is when you’re really trying to shed those layers of what other people expect of you, want of you and you’re trying to be your true self, so to speak.

Stéphane: Absolutely, and I guess organisations like family in an explicit or implicit way will expect of me as an employee or as a leader to adopt the codes and to adapt. And sometimes it's useful, sometimes it isn't.

Ramaa: And Ruchika what about yourself? If I said ‘What does authenticity mean to you?’ what would you say?

Ruchika: Wow, Ramaa and Stéphane, I really love, Stéphane, what you talked about, and I really identify with this idea of it being a really heavy coat, or for many of us, an armour that we have to put on. And I think there are so many layers to this that are related to the question of authenticity, related to your identity. And so even when I think of my adolescence, I think of my childhood, for many of us who were born outside the country of their parents' origin or moved at a very young age to a culture that was very different from the one that perhaps they'd seen at home, there's a constant, this heavy coat that you put on starts from a very young age. And when I think of authenticity, and especially right now, when people turn to me and they ask me on wonderful podcasts like this one, what does it mean to be your authentic self?

What is my authentic self? It's a question that's very tough and very confusing, especially for folks who have found themselves underrepresented or underestimated or both, especially in adulthood and then in the workplace.

The reality is I really don't know, because from a very young age, going to a British first and then an international school in Singapore, but growing up with Indian immigrant parents in Singapore, it was very confusing. What is my authentic self? Is it the one that speaks Hindi at home and, whether it was food or language or culture, but even the worldview, what are women capable of doing outside the home? Should they even be in the workplace, literally from those questions from a very young age, from what I saw modelled for me to what I saw in school and desperately wishing I could belong, desperately changing myself so I could belong. I had these really shameful memories of throwing away the food that my mom packed in my lunch box so that I could go out and I could buy food from the canteen that the other kids wouldn't tease me about. So now when I come to this place in my life where, yes, as an adult, theoretically, Ramaa, as you said, you are supposed to learn and you're supposed to fall into this authentic self that you are, I cannot decouple based on the experiences I had, whether the Ruchika was at home and the food I ate there and the language I spoke there and the way I was and some of the ideals I prescribed to at home, was that my authentic self? Was it the one that I was at school? Was it the sort of ‘rebel me’ as an adolescent? Was it the one that I was in my 20s, my 30s? I think that that is a question that's very tough and very confusing, especially for folks who have found themselves underrepresented or underestimated or both, especially in adulthood and then in the workplace.

Authenticity for wellbeing 

Ramaa: It's so interesting because I do lots of coaching and it comes up a lot. And, from my own experience, I found that realising that when you're from the diaspora, actually, you're a bit of both and you're carving this sort of middle ground, aren't you? And how, for me, my journey led me to believe that authenticity is some kind of actually about values and those values you take from the different cultures that we're brought up in and the reason why, as I said in my introduction of why I wanted to ask you both this question is, is that some of that assimilation or adaptation even a bad thing? Because we want to fit in and we want to belong versus authenticity. And I think, Stéph, if I can come back to you, there is a question about well-being though as well, isn't there? There's a question about authenticity being not just about wanting to come across as a true person, but also that actually, if you can be authentic, you can be more relaxed, you can be more, you could be well.

Stéphane: I think so. And I really, I feel inspired by what Ruchika has just said about it's not easy. It's full of uncertainties, who am I and who am I allowed to be when? I think you said well-being is also a sense of belonging, feeling loved, feeling accepted in the place I'm in now. And if I don't, I'm not going to feel well. There's not going to be any well-being. And at the same time, do I feel well and accepted at home? Do I feel well and accepted at work? Am I the same in between? And I think the well-being is about, can I integrate those two bits or those two or three or four bits as you described very well, which you guys, and in therapy, we talk about splitting. A part of us cannot connect with another part of us. And when those things are split, I think I wouldn't feel well. And sometimes the journey, the quest is being able to integrate, to reintegrate those different bits of us. And in effect, I sometimes say it needs to be spoken out, this kind of unease. It needs to be made explicit. I mean, therapy after all is often a journey from the implicit, the silent to the explicit that's spoken out. And I think it ought to be somehow the same in organisations where if, and we smile and even laugh about it sometimes, Ramaa, when at the start of a workshop, I would make it explicit that I'm French. It sounds trivial. I mean, in Britain, the French identity is not particularly oppressed. However, there's a difference there that I want to name. I want to name it because consciously or unconsciously, it will have an impact on my audience, on my peers, on the participants. And at least if I name it, we can make reference to it, whether it might be relevant at times, it might be relevant at other times, but at least we can speak about it. And I think for peers and leaders from formerly oppressed groups or currently oppressed groups, I'm assuming this is even more important to be able to name things, to talk things through.

Belonging, being othered and authenticity 

Ramaa: It's really interesting you said it, because I've actually seen you, witness you do that, Stéphane. And I remember in my mind, I was like, why is he talking about being... like, why is this relevant? I remember thinking, and then I sort of questioned myself, why did I have a problem with it? You know, and, and realising my inability to stand up in front of the same group and say, ‘hey, I'm different’. And it's clearly very, very obvious. And feeling that actually, perhaps in my life, there was a consequence of being different. There was a consequence of actually saying so, which meant that I then did not say so. That actually what I spent a lot of my time doing, saying, ‘hey, I'm like you, I'm like everyone. I'm like you.’ You know, ‘I'm the same. I'm born here. I'm…’, you know, and I, thought a lot about that. And since then, I've tried to play with it, try to, as you say, make it explicit. And sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn't work. I don't know if that's an experience you could share, Ruchika.

Ruchika: A hundred percent. And I think it's also something about stepping more into your authentic self as someone who has experienced, being othered, right? I don't want to say oppressed, although I know from personal experience, you know, being a woman of colour, being in spaces where perhaps you're the first, the only, the different. There's research on tokenism, which shows that pressure of needing to conform is really real. Adding to that code switching, which is, what we do, because we're expected to be a different person at home. We're expected to be a different person, perhaps in our own communities. I remember, I present as Indian, so I'd go to India, I was even a journalist in India for a short time,and people would immediately expect me to behave a certain way or speak a certain way. And I couldn't, and I felt othered in my own country by people who had the same skin colour as me, who had names like mine. So there's this constant pressure of like, do I belong here? What do I have to change about myself?

And then adding to the well-being piece, which Stéphane so beautifully articulated, is how much research now shows the pressure and the actual, the psychological toll it takes on people who have to code switch. And I want to name that code switch was really developed by researchers looking at the black experience in the workplace and how it can so much be applied to literally any other person who was born and, who has experienced life away from a very white, Eurocentric way of experiencing the workplace. And even among that, what we find, what's really amazing about belonging, work, and I know Stéphane, I can imagine you see this all the time, is in creating inclusive workplaces, in creating different authentic styles to really shine, even people from dominant majority groups feel like they belong more. Even they feel like they can truly bring a more authentic, true version of themselves, whether it's vulnerability, whether it's not having to conform to ideals, for example, of toxic masculinity or a lack of empathy that these very old outdated ways of showing up in the workplace. I think we're starting to challenge that by creating a more inclusive way and a way of belonging that looks different based on your identities.

Ramaa: Stéphane, did you want to respond to that?

Stéphane:  Well, I wanted to give an example, possibly in my past at the BBC, where I mostly worked in African news and current affairs and ended up in a position of relative responsibility. And I did a lot of recruiting in Africa, recruiting for talent, especially on-air talent, not only that. And we were trying to recruit people with potential, with literally on-air performance, with writing skills, and we did. And noticeably, once in London, people would change the way they were talking on air. And on a couple of occasions, I remember going to see a colleague of mine and saying, well, it's interesting I've noticed you speak differently now when you present the news. And the answer would be, ‘Well, I am on the BBC’. And the only direction I was trying to give, I’d say ‘Hold on, we've recruited you for your talent, for your voice, and you are the BBC’. But there was, I think, a longing to be accepted, a longing to belong. It's a very human thing. And Ruchika described it very well, longing to belong to the canteen as a teenage person, longing to belong. And the terror, it is a terror for me in the mind, the terror of being kicked out, of being sidelined, of being othered, as you said, Ruchika, of being marginalised. And it's not necessarily a conscious process, although possibly some presenters make it consciously, some others might have made it unconsciously.

I did a lot of recruiting in Africa. And noticeably, once in London, people would change the way they were talking on air. I’d say ‘Hold on, we've recruited you for your talent, for your voice, and you are the BBC’. But there was, I think, a longing to be accepted, a longing to belong. It's a very human thing.

Authenticity and impostor syndrome 

Ramaa: I think I want to add to that. I think it would also be about wanting to succeed. What is going to make me succeed? And so a part of my journey as well, which I think relates to your example, Stéphane, is, I had to sort of forgive myself that for the first 10 years of my career, I adapted because I was desperate to succeed. I wanted to be the best at what I was doing. And authenticity was a privilege, because if you come from a modest background, it was about making money. It was about changing your reality. It wasn't, you know… this concept of authenticity felt like something that came once I was established enough, once I had found my, found my skills, found the way to do things, found how the environment works, and then testing, okay, ‘now can I be authentic?’ and seeing how far you can go or how far you can't go? Which brings us neatly into how much of the environment affects our ability to be authentic. Because I bet for that individual, you being able to say what you said to them gave them so much commission, not just because you were their boss, but because you were the organisation that he perceived he had joined of saying, ‘I want you to be yourself’, and how empowered that would have made him feel. So on that, Ruchika, you wrote an article that went viral about this about that, is it about the people? Or is it about the culture and the organisation? Tell us in relation to this.

Ruchika: Yeah, and because this is a podcast, I just want to tell all the listeners that when Stéphane talked about the experience of going to people who changed themselves to feel like, ‘oh, this is the BBC, and I must change myself to fit in here’, I actually did a little victory dance  and then when Ramaa said this concept of having to forgive yourself, I think a lot of leaders of colour, many I speak to many I interviewed for my book, many I interviewed also for the specific article and other articles I've written about, the experience of being, again, particularly a woman of colour in the workplace. A big part of that relates to forgiving yourself for all those years you changed yourself. And dealt with a lot of the psychological impacts of code switching of changing, of conforming, you might have had to do things that didn't feel at all authentic to you, but pushing past that to succeed. And so when I wrote the article on stop telling women they have imposter syndrome, I co-wrote it with my co-author, Jodi-Ann Burey. We really wanted to touch upon how many of us are told we don't belong, maybe from a very young age, how those feelings are exacerbated by workplaces where the majority of leaders are not like Stephane, where they don't say ‘we want you to bring your authentic self’. You're actually punished and it becomes even more so.

I've started looking at the research around other intersections. Catalyst here in the United States did a fantastic report on unfortunately on how, for women whose hair is more, for example, identifiably thicker, curlier, you know, of African origin, that really gets penalised versus women with straight hair. So natural hair gets penalised versus straight, more Eurocentric hair. Darker skin tones get penalised. And again, what can you do with that? And, I've been looking at, unfortunately, this huge, very dangerous skin-lightening industry that has, many of us know about it, and to try and conform and to succeed. And so when I wrote this article on impostor syndrome, really, my hope was that more of us could question and really push back against this narrative that there was something lacking in us, that we were the impostors, that that feeling, that wish, that desire to belong that Stéphane talked about, which is so human. We are truly hardwired for belonging is what I've heard and what I've read and what I've experienced. That feeling of wanting to belong and changing yourself and needing to constantly change yourself because you're in an environment that tells you your authentic self or any identifiably different part of yourself is not welcome here and is not the key to success. Can you imagine the impact of dealing with that day in and day out for years on end, for decades on end? And I think that is the real question here. I think we really do need to ask from an environment standpoint, what can we do to be more inclusive so that we don't get to a stage where people have worked in a career for decades and said that they have impostor syndrome when actually what they have is that constant feeling of being told you don't belong here.

How organisations should foster authenticity 

Ramaa: So Ruchika, what do you tell organisations, what is the advice?

Ruchika: Yes, well, the number one advice is stop sending women and people of colour to these development programmes to become better leaders, right? Honestly, I think that when we look back at that, at those programmes, I think the only effectiveness is to help people find community, especially if it's outside the organisation, find that tribe of people who look a bit like you, who have a similar experience to you. But I think at the same time, the thing that comes very much to mind is what Stéphane kind of talked about, and again, once the article was published, Jodi-Ann and I talked to many, many women of color, women really around the world. And time and again, what we found is when you have managers and leaders who say to you, I believe in you, I love how you bring this very authentic self to work, I love this part of you that is clearly a very deep core part of you, of your leadership, of how you, the frameworks that you bring to the workplace.

I think that makes such a big difference. And I think being able to teach leaders, coach managers to look out for that is really, really important. And I think the other thing is really making sure that leaders understand how biased perspectives, stereotypes and other, you know, literally sometimes it's flat out racism or misogyny or sexism, that shows up in things like performance reviews and evaluations and conversations around who to hire and who to advance and have a very, very strong way to get ahead of that. And that's why I think being able to talk about these issues, bring to light, really, Stéphane, what you talked about is so key, because what I hope to do and what others like me are trying to hope, what we're hoping to do is really bring out and make explicit what has been implicit for years. And I think when Ramaa, when you and I prepped for this conversation, we really talked about how both of us had experienced that pushback and that inability to even articulate, like, what's going on in this room? You know, is there something going on with me? And then of course we know the big word of last year and years on end is gas lighting. But there's a lot of gas lighting that we both do to ourselves to try and deal with the situation. I remember dealing with racism in the workplace more than 10 years ago. And I would tell myself, ‘oh, no, no, no, that it's not, no, no, no, it's not racist. It's not because you're a woman of colour. It's just, you know, it's just you, you made the mistake, right? You did something wrong. You could have tried harder.’ And it's, and it's really being in an environment which makes it safe for you to say, no, something's wrong here and I need, I need support from people who are in leadership positions.

Ramaa: Stéphane you raised as well, this, this idea of language as well, Ruchika just said about the ability to be able to say, to challenge in the moment as a such a big part of changing a culture and helping to make it more inclusive.

Stéphane:  Yes, finding the right words, which is the work in therapy, actually, finding the right words is liberating because suddenly there is a situation where there is something I know is happening, but I haven't been able to think. And by looking for the words and naming what's happening to me as an individual, I can suddenly think the unknown and, and racism, oppression, discrimination is often not thought, often not named. I suppose the work as a therapist is also about for leaders to know themselves quite well to do the work about self-reflection. As Ruchika was saying, ‘There's an issue in the room. I feel, oh, suddenly someone is going, I feel a bit hurt here. Is it me or is it them? Can I say it? Can I say I'm hurt?’ And being able to, to know what hurts me will help me call out stuff in rules. Knowing full well, as Ruchika said, it's not me. It's the environment that's problematic. Can we talk about it? The other aspect of this, and it's, I'm not sure whether I'm jumping the gun here, but is for leaders of colour, for me, and you, Ramaa, and you, Ruchika, will know this much, much better than I would ever would, because I don't have the lived experience, but we're talking about othering and marginalisation and oppression. And there's a dilemma in my head, is ‘do I keep fighting?’, in which case my identity totally becomes the fighter identity, but still I'm being identified by the splits in the environment, by the oppression in the environment. Or do I stop fighting to find my real self possibly, but then the injustice is unaddressed. Somehow in my mind, it must be a dilemma, the fighter dilemma. Am I being totally defined by the fight and therefore, where's my freedom there? Or do I stop fighting and therefore abandon the struggle and the search for justice? Of course, I can't have an answer to that, but that's what's going on through my head as we are talking.

Ramaa: And I think it kind of neatly brings to a close the learning that I've found from you both, that you've very generously offered, which is that there are two things going on here, isn't there? There's this real journey of self-discovery that we have to go on, that we all go on, in fact, but perhaps there's a little bit more complexity if you're different in some way, you know, whether it's class or race or gender or diaspora, whatever it might be. That there's that work, whether it's the work of self-forgiveness, whether it's the work of, ‘you know what, I'm going to have to adapt because I've got food to put on the table and I don't have the privilege of being the fighter, even’. Or the choice of like, okay, well, I know a lot of people going to do D&I work, perhaps Ruchika, you're the same, because actually that's the mission, that's what you want to do, that's where you find you have some skills. And I find myself constantly thinking, well, actually, do I want to be defined in that way? But actually, there's some value to be added, this constant question. And then there's so much to be said about the organisations. There is, I can imagine that if I was in a place where there were lots of Stéphanes around there were lots of, kind of, leaders who were interested in not just your journalism skills - sorry, I know I'm making you blush - but not just the quality of your journalism, but actually the quality of the insight that you bring because of who you are, even though it might be more difficult to understand, even though it might be more niche for you to understand, that that's really valued and, what would the impact be then of your staff in being able to be themselves? And I'm really curious to learn more about that. I want to thank you both for your time on this podcast. Any final thoughts before we finish?

Authenticity and inclusivity in journalism 

Ruchika: Yeah, I'll go first. And I just, Ramaa and Stéphane, obviously, I'm very, very thankful for this opportunity. I think there's two things here. I think for the organisation and for leaders, especially with leadership positions, with privilege, with power, I don't think you can turn away from making your organisation more inclusive and there's research upon research study that shows why we know we're better journalists, we know we're better media, we actually uphold the ideals of democracy and the job that we're supposed to do, the more diverse and inclusive we are. So I think there's that side. The other side for, as you know, as people of colour, as women of colour, people with other, marginalised, underestimated backgrounds, I think it's completely fine to make the right choice for you, and I think there will come a day, for most of us that I've spoken to, where you cannot ignore those rumblings, right? And it shows up in different ways. It could mean you continue on in a job, in an environment that perhaps is very challenging, and you decide you want to do the fight internally for a variety of reasons. For some of us, we had the privilege, I had the privilege of leaving workplaces that were toxic for me for a variety of reasons, and I did, and this is the way that I decided that I would both begin the journey of self-healing and hopefully creating paths for others. I think whichever way you go, certainly, and I want to say this specifically to people who are struggling with this, you have to put yourself first, and you have to forgive yourself first as you decide what to do and how to navigate these waters. And I think for, especially again, for organisations and for leaders in positions of power and privilege, it's foolish not to prioritise this.

Ramaa: Thank you, Ruchika. Stéphane?

Stéphane:  Well, I think I would simply like to pay homage to Ruchika's first words about the complexity, the personal complexity, the search, the quest for the authentic self is a long journey full of uncertainties, as you've just said, Ruchika, but you need to make the right choices for yourself, and it's a never-ending journey. It's a quest. It's a beautiful quest with ups and downs, with joys, hopes, and also pains and despair. And I think, I hope more and more organisations are able to embrace this language and this quest to make working places better for everyone.

Ramaa: And I think there'd be better results as well, as a result. Thank you both again.

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