Authenticity is Simple to Define, but Harder to Find
Authenticity is an area that is not so difficult to define. The Latin and earlier Greek roots to the word still hold true today. One word tends to sum it up – “genuine”. When we hear the phrase “This is the genuine article”, whether referring to a piece of art, an antique or a human being, we tend to mean that what it is said to be, it simply is. An authentic painting, for example, is just that, painted in the era stated and by the artist to which it is attributed. Basically what we see is real, not fake, and not partially real or true but 100% so.
Authenticating art is a tricky business. There are numerous stories of experts getting it wrong. Thus finding authentic pieces of art can be challenging. No less challenging, however, than finding authenticity in people. Finding out who an individual really is, what they actually believe or stand for. How do you know what you are getting is what it says on the package? There are numerous resources available on personal marketing, dressing for success, interviewing, presenting – the list goes on. How do you find the authentic person adorned in all these tools, techniques and learned behaviors? Somehow we just know. We have an experience with someone and what we call our intuition, and often something even more subtle, tells us that something isn’t quite right. Something is missing, something is withheld, something unsaid.
Our purpose here is not learning how to find authenticity or the lack of it in others. Our sensing mind tends to do this, if we listen to it. Our purpose is on how to be authentic.
Here we should first clarify something. We said above that authenticity isn’t that difficult to define, it’s pretty simple. When combined with the concept of leadership, however, some interesting things happen. It begins to expand as a concept. This expansion makes it more and more difficult to understand as it becomes more diffuse and complex rather than simple. We associate truth and realness. These attributes are part and parcel of our simple definition. As in the painting, the label is “truthful” and the painting itself is “real”. As these are quite nice attributes when it comes to leaders, we then start to see truthfulness and being real as general attributes of good leadership. We then start attaching more attributes to authentic leaders such as openness, generosity, thoughtfulness and even things like being team centred. This takes us away from what authenticity in its simple form actually is.
You can be an Authentic Jerk
What a particular leader is, authentically, may not be something we necessarily like. Let’s once again revisit our painting. We look at the painting, look at the label and see that it is titled “Autumn Rhythm” and was painted by Jackson Pollock in 1950, as authenticated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in which it hangs. We may be satisfied that this is in fact “Autumn Rhythm”, the real thing, right before us. This doesn’t mean, however, that we like the work itself or its attributes. It doesn’t mean we truly appreciate the style and the manner in which it was painted. Our like, dislike, approval or disproval, has nothing to do with authenticity itself. We simply want to know that what is said is truthful and what is in front of us is real. Similarly with leaders or people in general. You may find many who are genuine, but this doesn’t mean you will like them, their style or what the stand for. You might even see them as a “jerk” but at least they are authentic. It simply means they are being what is stated on the label and they are consistent internally and externally.
Being authentic then, as a human being, a leader, is very similar. It is holding to the attributes of being truthful and real. There may be other attributes that make this even more powerful but they are not necessarily related to authenticity.
Showing up Authentically
In working with leaders over the years, specifically in relation to speaking and using their voices authentically, consistency becomes a key factor. We work to encourage internal and external consistency, getting what is seen and heard on the outside, consistent with what is felt and experienced on the inside. If you, as a leader, don’t like what is on the inside, don’t feel it is becoming of a leader of people or an enterprise, change it. So often, we are taught directly, or indirectly to mask what is really going on, what we actually feel, or even think. In politics, particularly in the UK, the whole concept of “spin” has become accepted as the norm. We now hire “spin doctors” to massage and shape our messages to avoid realness and truth. This is not to say that some messages benefit from preparation and shaping. It is when the shaping is designed to conceal or shift the truth that there is a problem. I bring up “spin” to indicate just how far we’ve gone with planned in-authenticity. We would like to help reverse this.
Our Purpose with Authenticity
This isn’t, however, a political article! The purpose of our work is to empower individuals to bring more of themselves into their work and messages, to bring more consistency with who they are on the inside, with what people experience on the outside. Our experience is that as we grow and are shaped through school, culture, business and organisational life, we learn to cover attributes, emotions and values that are powerful and meaningful. In many cases, we are no longer aware they even exist. Bringing them out brings out our powerful, authentic selves. This in turn leaves people with a clean and memorable experience of who we are, what we stand for and what future we are trying to create.
We’ve made a few key points on authenticity, in summary:
- Authenticity is not complex. It simply means genuine, the real thing, something that is true. You get what it says on the package.
- While simple in definition, authenticity is not so easy to determine or find. Fortunately, when it comes to people, our intuition picks it up, sending us a strong or subtle message.
- Being authentic, whether it is a piece of art or a leader, doesn’t’ mean we will like what we see, hear, get. There may be other attributes that come with the object of our attention that do not fit with our views, beliefs or values. The phrase “I don’t like her but at least she is honest” is an example of how this plays out in our language.
- Being authentic is primarily a job of becoming consistent. Getting your internal self and external self aligned in speaking, behaving and being. If we don’t like what we see on the inside, don’t feel it right for who we want to be, then change it.
- Our purpose is to bring out the powerful authentic self that stands beneath, often buried by layers of cultural shaping, be it from school, family, work or general society, back to the surface, out in the foreground. This authentic self stands openly for his or her values, expresses powerfully with the emotions present and engages other in doing so, in a future they are trying to create.