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Discovering your different selves in role 

Published 18 March 2024 in Leadership • 9 min read

With around 30 years’ experience in different executive roles, Ernst & Young veteran Janet Truncale will become the firm’s first female CEO in July. As she makes this historic career shift, it will be interesting to see whether she continues to bring her whole self to work, an axiom that Truncale has long espoused and famously advocates.

“Bringing your whole self to work” has passed into workplace orthodoxy. CEOs on both sides of the Atlantic routinely talk about the need for truth or authenticity in leadership. Hanneke Willenborg is the CEO of supplement manufacturer Olly, a Unilever firm. She speaks passionately about the need to “show up real” in the workplace. Macy’s boss Jeff Gennette wants his people to bring their “authentic selves” to work a view shared by Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic and now faculty at Harvard. George describes his latest book as a “clarion call to lead with authenticity.”

These management mantras sound compelling, and I do believe they point to the essential humanity of the leaders who use them. But what do they mean? What does bringing your whole self to work look like in practice? How do you show up “real” or “authentic” in the workplace, or in any situation for that matter? More importantly, how useful are these kinds of dictates to leaders grappling with the everyday realities of the job?

I believe there is a critical distinction between the notions of self and role; between “me the person” and “me the person in a role.” I also believe that we underestimate the power of context in determining how we show up in role.

So, what do I mean by that? Let’s start by unpacking the idea of “role.”

What is role?

I recently worked with a senior executive at a multinational in his mid-40s who was promoted to CEO. Alex had always presented himself as a congenial guy, willing and able to articulate and share his feelings. Shifting gears into this new role, Alex was struggling to modify these behaviors, which in turn were at risk of becoming destabilizing to his team. Talking it through together, he understood that his new role required him to be less articulate about his emotions. Sure, his former colleagues, now subordinates, might think he’d become a real jerk. But these would be their projections onto Alex in role, not onto Alex as a person. And the role required him to show up differently.

What does this tell us about role?

In social psychology, the concept of role helps us to define what’s different or unique about ourselves in a social situation or context. Role has many layers to it. It can include formal roles (e.g. job titles) but it can also be roles as they relate to other people (peer, sibling, friend, boss, parent, child, subordinate). There’s an even deeper layer which relates to social roles: the behaviors we use or the way we show up in a particular role –jocular, authoritative, empathic or studiously neutral.

Social roles suggest that we never bring our entire selves to any situation. Instead, we deploy different parts of ourselves – different colors from the palette of our identity or personality, so to speak – depending on the needs and exigencies of the different roles and contexts that we inhabit. Think about it. Are you the same (whole) self when you are interacting with a family member, sibling or spouse as you are when you are talking to your team, supervisory board, or workforce? Or do you bring in different dimensions of your identity – your warm side, your critical side, your subordinate side, or sometimes your more strident, bullish side – according to the requirements of the role and the circumstances?

You can adjust how you show up according to what each of these roles needs from you in the moment. Of course, this makes it hard (impossible, I think) to be consistently authentic or wholly yourself in different contexts. Because to occupy one role effectively, you may have to intentionally push other parts of yourself away.

As a colleague, you may need to eschew the bullish, strident side of yourself in favor of the warmer, empathic side. As a CEO, it’s likely you will need to suppress the teddy bear in favor of the grizzly bear – at least some of the time.

How can the concept of role help you as a leader? And how can any dissonance you might feel between context, role, and self help you to adapt or transform your leadership?

Role as a resource – but one to use with care

Role can be a vital resource for leaders. Stepping into a role, taking it on purposefully, provides a degree of distance – a buffer or boundary – that can help protect the self from the dissonance of senior leadership context. If you make a conscious distinction between your private, personal self and the role that you inhabit in the work context, you can use that role as a sort of shield; one that can help you withstand the pressure and stress you have to manage every day. Role can also protect you from the negative projections of others, provided you are able to hold or contain your role effectively.

Now, this is not to say that role is an artificial construct. Role is part of you. But only part. Stepping into a role means bringing out and combining different parts of your identity that you need to be effective. As such, role is more flexible than identity. And it can be an enormous source of creativity and inventiveness.

“Social roles suggest that we never bring our entire selves to any situation.”

Let’s say you have stepped into a new role with more responsibility and greater expectations. As time passes, you will notice that even though you know yourself well, there will be a period where you search for yourself, your authority, your conviction. You may have more self-doubt than usual as you try to read the context. You will contemplate how transparent or how guarded you need to be. Should you reveal your inner thoughts, or should you keep them to yourself? If you were open with your former team, is that the best way to show up in this context?

You might demonstrate a lot of empathy and listening at first, but then you realize you also need to show a firm hand, a more dispassionate self. As you do this, you are reconciling the dissonance you feel between you the person and you the person in a role. After a while, you will feel that you have “found” yourself. You feel grounded with yourself and in flow. But with this groundedness, you start to lose your flexibility.

In any role, there’s always a risk that other people’s expectations of you in your role may congeal and harden over time, leaving you with little leeway (or inclination) to try out different parts of your personal palette. The context is now pushing you to be more predictable, to show up in a familiar way. You might become the one who is always making jokes to relieve tension, the one who complains on everyone’s behalf, or the one who harmonizes and mediates conflicts. While you might think this is your personality, you only have to ask: do you do this in other contexts? If the answer is no, you know that your behavior is more tied to role than identity.

Eventually, you might become the role. Your sense of self becomes so interwoven with the role that your self-esteem and identity depend on maintaining it. This frequently happens with very demanding and stressful roles.This is where the hard work begins, and the concept of role dissonance can be helpful in unlocking these predictable behaviors.

Managing role dissonance

  • The first step is to be more self-aware. A good habit to get into is to stop and ask yourself questions that will make you more conscious of the distinction between your person and your role.
  • The next step is to ask yourself: “If I am to serve this role and its task, what is the context requiring of this role at this time?” Let’s say you are feeling angry or frustrated. Before you start showing your anger or frustration, stop and ask yourself: “How would showing my anger or frustration serve the role in this context?” We know that expressing anger or frustration can create relief for you the person, but does it serve your role? That is not to say that expressing anger or frustration is a bad thing. It can mobilize people as well as create fear. The question is what the role needs – not what you need.
  • Finally, ask yourself if the expression of emotion is something that you often do in this context. Being aware of and reflecting on person, role, and context this way, and the dissonance between them, is a useful framework for your own personal adaptation and transformation. It also helps you avoid getting stuck in a rut.

In the next article, I’ll share some insights and techniques that you can use to build this kind of self-awareness and ensure that you are leveraging your role as a resource, and not becoming stuck in a role-rut.

Of course, there will always be natural opportunities for you to break out of one role and into another. If you are entering into a new role in some way, it’s a good moment to be conscious about how you want to configure or reconfigure your palette.

Remember, at work, you are stepping into a role at the service of the organization and the people within that organization. Your person and your self-esteem might want to be liked, popular, understood, or whatever, but you might not need to be any of those things in this role. It’s your job to fulfill what the role requires. Do this right, do this mindfully, and in return, the role can protect you.

Bringing your whole self to work, bringing your true or authentic self: these things sound nice, for sure. But they’re not that helpful. Axioms make things sound simple and obvious but in reality, leadership belongs to a universe of complexity.

Leadership is challenging, it brings conflicting demands, and it requires you to manage complexity and dissonance every day and in everything you do. Again, no one ever said it was going to be easy at the top. It’s tough. But with the right degree of mindfulness and self-awareness, the rewards are immense in learning and growth. We’ll look at this again in my next article.


Ben Bryant

Ben Bryant

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ben Bryant is a is a highly skilled educator, executive team coach, and speaker. He is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD in Lausanne and Director of the IMD CEO Learning Center and the Transformational Leader program. He was previously the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership.


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