Here’s the thing. We have an authenticity problem. More specifically, we have a belief that we have to be our authentic selves all of the time.
I’m not so sure that’s actually true. In fact, I’m fairly certain that it’s counterproductive and harmful.
Part of the challenge is in understanding what it means to actually be authentic. The dictionary definition is relatively straightforward: “real or genuine; not copied or false.” We can extrapolate from this that, if we are being authentic, our behaviour, our presence, our interactions should be real or genuine. The implication is that we just have to be ourselves, and everything else follows.
The challenge here is that we are very often NOT ourselves. Not wholly, anyway. We are not our raw, unvarnished, brutally honest selves in all situations, just letting it all hang out. We adjust ourselves to different circumstances and different contexts. When dear friends ask for the truth about them (or their spouses) we dissemble or soft pedal what we really feel. When our boss wants to know the problems at work, we downplay our view of what’s wrong (and how they contributed to it), couching our opinions in language that will be more favourably received. We don’t show up at work in track pants and flip flops, even if that’s how you might find us in the backyard with no one around.
Even if we feel one way, what we present is something different. We put on a brave face, we tell white—or not-so-white—lies and we hide our true emotions. In situations where we struggle, or feel uncertain, or lack confidence, we suck it up, buckle down and make the best of it. This is all part of what it means to navigate successfully the shoals, tributaries and eddies of this marvellous river we call life.
Let’s talk about public speaking, for example. We all do it at some point. Most of us, if we are honest, hate it. In fact, to put not to fine a point on it, we fear it, loathe it, dread doing it and—research has repeatedly shown—it ranks as one of the greatest phobias of modern society. What we also know is that a little fear actually helps. For starters, it gives us a kickstart of adrenaline. And it can actually help make the audience more receptive to our message. Show that you are a little bit nervous? That’s awesome. You will have the audience on your side, rooting for you. They’ll be silently encouraging you, sending out positive vibes. And when you dig deep to overcome those nerves, finding your confidence and delivering a stunning presentation? You’ve won big time. Not only have you overcome adversity, but they helped (because of all of those positive vibes).
But—and this is a very big but—what happens if you show the whole truth? If you demonstrate that you are mind numbingly, achingly, sweaty-palm-and-clammy-back frightened to be up there? Then, my friend, you are dead. We want people—especially our leaders—to be a little bit vulnerable. The right amount of anxiety, fear or humility is just the thing to seal the deal. But we don’t want them to be open books of breath-taking and jaw-dropping honesty. Too much fear, too much anxiety, too much modesty, and people will altogether take you at your word. And then the assessment—fairly or not—is going to be that you just don’t have what it takes, which is not the outcome any of us are hoping for.
The problem is that we’re not even honest about authenticity. A recent article I shared discussed what was characterized as authentic leadership. It argues both that authenticity is a desired leadership trait, and that it is made up of a number of factors. Two sentences in this article are very telling, however: “Transparency is as easy to overdo as it is to under-do. Saying too much or too little about what you think or feel can be dangerous for leaders.” In other words, if you want to be perceived as an authentic leader, you need to be careful of what you say and how you say it. You need to strike the right balance between open and honest and exercising discretion. Or, to phrase it another way, we’re not even being authentic about what it means to be authentic.
So what are we actually doing here? How much of ourselves should we be revealing, and when is too much? It’s an interesting question. A recent article by an employee at Buffer explored this, and wondered about whether she could bring her ‘whole self to work.’ The article suggests it is possible. And yet, again, there are some telling lines. In the article she quotes the CEO of Slack, another tech company, who says, “We believe there is a widespread feeling that people are meant to check a lot of stuff at the door when they arrive at work. Some of that makes sense, but there’s a risk of having people feel diminished or unable to contribute fully—that’s the part we hope Slack can have a shot at correcting.”
The key take away for many of us is that we shouldn’t be checking our stuff at the door. We shouldn’t feel diminished, or that we can’t contribute fully. But yet, there’s that little qualifying statement: “Some of that makes sense.” He implies we’d like to make the point of inviting you to bring more of you than at other companies. But there’s still going to be some stuff that you will—and should—leave at the door.
So if we’re not expected to be wholly, massively, narcissistically authentic in our behaviours, just what do we need to be doing? The lesson seems to be this: we should bring some of us, but not all of us; we should be honest, but not too honest; we should be transparent, but not too transparent. Where is the actual line here? What makes sense, what’s too much, and how do we traverse what is rapidly emerging as a very narrow and delicate tightrope of revealing enough to be interesting but not so much that we actually destroy all credibility?
I’m reading a really interesting book right now called Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer that places this question in stark relief. He discusses the CEO of Caesars, the casino company, visiting a business school while suffering from the flu and running a temperature of 101. He comments, “Loveman knows that those small interactions were important, and that, regardless of how he felt, what else was going on in his life or in the company, or how tired he was, he had to be fully present and engaged in those interactions… So, regardless of how he felt in the moment or what he wanted to be doing, Loveman… had to be able to put on the public face of a leader.”
What might be exhibited could be completely inauthentic. It could have nothing whatsoever to do with where the person as leader is, or what they were feeling, or what they honestly thought about a situation. Instead, they needed to assume the mantle of leader, and behave and interact in a way that people expected of a leader. Especially for people that they, in every day life, probably interact with only very occasionally.
Pfeffer goes on to state, entirely directly, “…being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do.” It’s not about demonstrating their true feelings, or saying what is really on their mind, or just being themselves (track pants, flip flops and all). It is about behaving in a way that reflects the position they hold, that emphasizes the priorities that they need to reinforce and that above all demonstrates the leadership qualities that people expect to see. Says Pfeffer, “…[l]eaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them.”
What this speaks to is the complete antithesis of what ‘authentic’ is supposed to represent. What it represents, in fact, is playing a role. This is an idea that Piers Ibbotson reflects so well in his brilliant book, The Illusion of Leadership. Ibbotson was an actor and then a director with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, who now coaches and teaches leadership to executives. He argues that leadership has very little to do with authenticity, and very much to do with creating authentic perceptions. In his view, as leaders, we are working hard to create experiences that are appropriately authentic to those who receive them.
This is very different from actually being authentic. It has little to do with where we are at or what we are feeling. It is instead about creating the experiences that people need, expect or require, in order to instil the reaction that is necessary. Priests do this at a funeral. Politicians do this in encouraging people to vote for them. Executives do this in championing a change program. Regardless of what they as people are feeling—how anxious, sad, mournful, fearful or panic-stricken they may actually be—they endeavour to portray the sincerity, solemnity and gravitas that the occasion requires.
What is important to recognize is this isn’t being entirely insincere, any more than the perception of ‘being authentic’ presumes that we are letting all of our warts, inadequacies and insecurities hang out there for everyone to engage with. It is about managing our behaviour and our appearance to suit the situation. Is this manipulation? Critics of the politician might say so. In the same breath, though, they will praise the priest for pushing past their personal feelings and delivering a passionate and moving eulogy. This implies that one approach is moral, and the other less so.
In actual fact, all of us play many roles. As parents, brothers, sons, sisters, daughters, spouses, friends, advisors, bosses, subordinates, colleagues and acquaintances, we interact with many people. Each interaction is different. In every interaction, we are playing a role. In some roles the stakes are high, and in others they are inconsequential. In some situations, we have a need to have influence; in others, someone hopes to influence us.
What goes to authenticity in all of this is the degree to which we appear to be true to ourselves. What’s important to recognize is that what appears true may be different than what is actually true. As an executive, or a project manager, or a team leader, we may need to inspire a confidence that we don’t feel. We may need to encourage behaviours that we struggle with. We may need to persuade an audience of arguments that we are not wholly certain about.
Doing so, and doing so well, isn’t about lying. It isn’t about dissembling. It isn’t about deception. It is about being clear about who we are, identifying who we are dealing with and knowing the outcome we need to create. From there, it’s about injecting enough of ourselves—and resonating enough with them—to encourage the results that are needed.
Authenticity is a dangerous concept. Not because we aren’t true and honest. But because creating truth and honesty requires playing a role, and doing so in a way that is believable, resonant and compelling. That is what actors do; they demonstrate universal truths that resonate, by impersonating someone they are not. They do this not by being someone they aren’t, but by finding within themselves something that is true to what they have to portray. The most believable performances are still performances; what makes them compelling and noteworthy is that they have the ring of truth, even when they aren’t fully true.
Leadership is a role like any other. Authentic leadership isn’t about being ourselves, and hoping that who we are is compelling enough that people want to follow us. Instead, it is knowing what the people we need to reach are looking for, and finding within ourselves the elements that best resonate with what they need to see. Being authentic is not measured by how honest we feel that we are; it is measured by how honest others perceive us. It is often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is authenticity.