What does it take to be an authentic leader? Seven takeaways from our podcast series

Editor and consultant Ramaa Sharma on what she's learnt from speaking with managers from Brazil, India, Nepal, Nigeria and Mexico
4th September 2023

Earlier this year I hosted Authentic Leadership, a five-episode podcast series exploring the value of authenticity and why it should matter to newsrooms and newsroom leaders around the world. 

I started the podcast exploring the term authenticity, the idea of being oneself to discover what it could mean in the context of leadership. Then I interviewed a number of executives from India, Nepal, Nigeria, Mexico and Brazil, and asked them whether they felt they could be themselves at work. In this article I share some of the things I learnt from their leadership journeys in the hope they are useful for others. 

1. Being authentic is not always easy 

In the first episode I asked Stéphane Mayoux and Ruchika Tulshyan what authenticity meant to them. Mayoux is a psychotherapist and a former editor. Tulshyan is a diversity and inclusion specialist, and a former business journalist. 

From a psychotherapeutic perspective, Mayoux said that authenticity is often a conscious choice and that adapting is a normal and natural process:

As [children], we all need to adapt to the environment. And some of these 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 to '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 and our real self.

So if this heavy coat is inevitable what impact does it have on individuals having to adapt to more than one culture? And what if the cultures are markedly different in values, customs and worldviews? 

Ruchika grew up in Singapore to Indian immigrant parents and attended an international school. She explained that she found the journey of adapting and being true to oneself fraught and confusing:

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 buy food from the canteen, [so] that the other kids wouldn't tease me about [it].

She added that it doesn’t necessarily get any easier in adulthood: 

There's research on tokenism [at work] which shows that the pressure of needing to conform is real. [This adds] to that code switching because we're expected to be a different person at home [and in our own communities].

For more on the conversation exploring what ‘authenticity’ means with Ruchika and Stéphane listen to episode one below. 

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

2. Authenticity can come at a cost

In episode 2, Anup Kaphle, editor-in-chief of the news site Rest of World, shared how authenticity came at a cost when he first arrived in the United States. At college Anup had to change significantly, including the way he spoke, in order to be accepted. This had a big impact on him:  

It was pretty much … self-censorship in many ways, not expressing what I thought, how I felt, what I believed in. I just went from [being] a very talkative person to not speaking. And because I felt like being myself was inviting more pain, I didn't know how to handle that. And I just froze. So for the first few years in college, I was like a very different person than what I had been for 19 years of my life.

Several years later, Anup would also find it difficult to report on the stories he wanted to tell. On one occasion he was even threatened with deportation if he didn’t reveal his sources. You can listen to Anup’s story in the episode below. 

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

3. Authenticity can be threatening

In episode 3 Yvette Dimiri, Head of Growth at Stears Insights in Nigeria, shared how her first leadership experience was mired by what looked like ageism and sexism. 

When Yvette was brught into Stears to lead digital transformation, she hadn’t expected the hostility she would face for wanting to innovate and change newsroom practices. This is what she experienced:

Comments like, ‘oh, who are you? Who are you anyway? You're so-and-so's girlfriend. And [that] I had just showed up there by virtue of my relationship to that person. Obviously false. I started to hear ‘I've been working longer than you’ve been alive’. And, you know, just comments that were really targeted at belittling the recommendations [I was making] and not really engaging with the intellectual part of what I was trying to accomplish. Then I knew that it would be an uphill climb.

When I asked Yvette what she did and how she coped with such instances she said: 

At some point, I remember it became clear to me that none of it was actually about me…. or what [I’m] trying to accomplish. It's almost always about the fear in the other person, and what's going on in their mind, and the meaning they're attributing to what you're trying to do, what it means for them. And so being able to really dig into that, having that imagination and that empathy about ‘what could it be that this person is resisting?’ Those are much more useful questions to ask than ‘why me?'

To hear more of Yvette’s journey and to learn where she got her resilience from listen to episode 3 below.  

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

4. The quest for authenticity is not always a top priority

In episode 4 we met Rupa Jha. Today Rupa is the head of the BBC’s bureau in India. She started out as a producer over 20 years ago and is now responsible for leading more than 250 journalists in the BBC’s biggest bureau outside of London. 

But this trajectory was not always a given. At the beginning of her career Rupa was full of self-doubt. Born in one of the poorest states in India, the opportunities for her as a woman were limited. Her worldview and her approaches were also constantly questioned. Rupa’s priority was success. She felt a fierce desire to transcend her childhood reality. The pursuit of authenticity came to her later. She says: 

I grew up in a very, very modest family... It has been a journey of living with less, always fending for yourself. Resilience comes from your own circumstances. When you want to dream big, when you are ambitious, when you have aspirations, then you know that it is not going to come on a silver platter, because it's not. You have to really work hard for it and you have to really make it count. So that resilience came because I didn't want to give up. Because I knew that this is a very important opportunity for me to break that cycle where you could be just married off.

Hear Rupa’s story in full below. 

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

5. Authenticity is a privilege 

In the final episode of the podcast series we heard from two leaders from Latin America. The first is Fernanda Delmas, Editor-in-Chief of Brazil's leading financial title Valor Econômico

Fernanda shared how she had to conform to male standards at the beginning of her career. There was an expectation in the newsroom that she would alter the way she looked and dressed. She also recalls how women were propositioned by their seniors, and how if they declined, their careers were threatened. 

Today she says that some things have improved but there’s still some way to go. She thinks it is still particularly challenging for Black women in the workplace: 

Sometimes you see Black women, for example, being told, ‘Oh, you must have different hair to succeed,’ or being challenged because they are not sure if [they] are properly educated… And being discriminated against [for the] way [they] express themselves.

To hear more of Fernanda’s story and how she’s changing Valor Econômico to be a more diverse and inclusive place to work, listen below. 

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

6. Authenticity requires courage and healing 

Finally, I spoke to Marcela Turati, an award-winning journalist and the co-founder of two nonprofits in Mexico: A dónde van los desaparecidos, a project tracking stories of disappeared people, and Quinto Elemento, an initiative to train the next generation of Mexican investigative journalists.

Living in one of the most dangerous places to be a reporter, Marcela is reinventing journalism through her projects to ensure the safety of all involved. She does this by collaborating across organisations, sharing exclusives (so individual journalists are harder to target), training and providing healing spaces to deal with the traumas local reporters face on a regular basis.

Her work has won several awards and her network has grown exponentially. But Marcela’s journey has not been easy. She has had to face relentless criticism and sexism along the way. 

Marcela continues to pioneer new approaches to support frontline staff as well as doing some of the difficult reporting herself. For her, journalism is the mission, but rest and healing are also necessary requisites:

Many journalists who are at risk need rest and to think clearly. They need the space, the emotional and physical space where they can sleep well, [be amongst] good and beautiful things. Many times as we live under this pressure we have no time and space to think, so we turn off the fear and just continue to [do] the work. We have to, in a way, provide these spaces to do better, to protect journalists and also to protect the right of the people to be informed… to protect the whole ecosystem.

To hear more about Marcela’s projects, ambitions and the workshops she runs for journalists listen to the final episode below.

Spotify | Apple | Google | Full transcript

7. Authentic leadership can bring change

All the leaders in the series have faced challenges beyond the complexities of the roles they were recruited for. They have had to contend with being told that who they are is a problem. They were either not good enough or their ideas were too much, too different, too young or too female. In some cases it was implied that their ethnicity was a problem. 

All the leaders have had to make choices about the behaviour they were confronted with. Instead of seeing leaving their organisations as ‘failing,’ leaders like Anup and Marcela have gone on to forge new and necessary institutions. 

Others like Rupa and Fernanda chose to stay and are now senior enough to create the changes they wished to see. Regardless of the routes these leaders have opted for they have, and are creating, meaningful change as a result of being true to themselves. 

A final thought for organisations 

If you want to see real change, fairer workplaces and better journalism, you need to make space for and nurture these kinds of authentic leaders. 

Have you asked how the leaders from minority backgrounds in your companies are doing? Some newsrooms may not even employ any of them. 

In some countries the minorities are women, people from a different class, caste, ethnicity or other protected characteristic. Are you aware of the additional challenges and barriers they may be facing? Have you spoken to them about it? Are your systems equipped with supporting them adequately? And what about the culture of the company? Does it enable inclusion and belonging?

The subject of authenticity and leadership is an ongoing subject of study for Ramaa so if you would like to get in touch in response to the above or to contribute feel free to reach out to her via her website: www.ramaasharma.com

If you want to learn more about these issues: 

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