We’re preparing to undergo a momentous change in workplace dynamics over the next decade, with 75% of the existing workforce expected to transition from Boomer to Millennial. As such, we are sorely in need of consensus around what truly defines authenticity. We need to understand it from both a personal standpoint, and, more broadly, from the standpoint of our respective organizations. Let me start by stating what I believe “being authentic” is not.
Authenticity is not:
- Just doing whatever you want to do, when you want to do it—that ground has been squarely claimed by the five-year-olds
- Refusing to do what is asked of you, because you just don’t want to do it—that one belongs to teenagers
- Your own combination of systemic dysfunction, childhood agonies and personal drama—the Kardashians have that one sealed up
- And authenticity is not something that may be self-declared; authenticity is bestowed.
So, if we can agree that these are not characteristics of the authentic (but, perhaps, of our beloved reality TV stars), then what would define authenticity? And why should we consider it important to possess?
So, What IS Authenticity?
I will argue that authenticity results when our words and actions are consistent—and in alignment—with our true intellectual and moral character. This definition owes a good deal to my favorite Parisian café philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre. When not throwing back glasses of red wine, he connected authenticity to an individual’s responsibility and ownership for their choices and their actions. More than just a fun name to say and a poster child for pipe-smoking intellectuals, Sartre was a powerful voice in the intellectual current of the 20th century, where he refused to allow us any excuse, nor any relief, from the awesome responsibility our freedom bestows upon us. Because we’re free individuals—free to make our own choices—we own full responsibility for the actions and consequences of these choices. When we seek to skirt or minimize this responsibility, we not only lose our authenticity, but lose a truer sense of being—a condition he labeled as living in “bad faith.”
While I am confident few leadership development moguls have attempted to combine the Kardashians, French existential philosophy and leadership development into a single theme, I am similarly convinced you may be asking where exactly is this going? Touché. (BTW, that’s French too…)
Connecting Authenticity to Leadership
Turns out, it’s as easy as connecting Nicholas Cage to a lousy movie script to connect authenticity with effective leadership. If we value leadership—and let’s presume that you do—then leadership offered in the absence of authenticity carries no gravity. Thus, when our words and deeds fail to carry the conviction of our true beliefs and attitudes, we are every bit guilty of conducting ourselves with Sartrean bad faith.
Not much imagination is required to consider a throng of scenarios where a lack of authenticity in leadership—or the perception of in-authenticity—plays out in our daily work life:
- You’re responsible for driving a project you don’t believe in, yet you recoiled from expressing this opinion for fear of reprisal.
- You manage a team around a service line you yourself are not proficient with, creating the impression you are a fraud in this role.
- You refused to have a candid and difficult conversation with one of your direct reports about their performance, because you’re not comfortable with conflict. But you also refused to tell your boss you didn’t have this conversation, because that’s also a difficult and awkward conversation for you to have. Like Congress, you simply chose to do nothing.
- A colleague asks for constructive feedback on her proposal, and, rather than being honest and direct with her about its flaws, we heap false praise upon it and send her off to meet with senior management with an encouraging smile.
What We Risk Through Authenticity
Note that being truly authentic risks our popularity; it risks our political clout; and it certainly may put us at risk for not being the knowledge leader or subject matter expert our colleagues believe us to be. But, in return, it buys us true integrity, and the satisfaction of being one who can withstand the glare of the mirror on a cold Monday morning. It also buys us courage: the sort of fearlessness that is born of a deep and inviolate understanding of ourselves and the limits of our compromise.
But there is a fuller dimension to this discussion about authenticity, hinted at by monsieur Sartre: freedom exacts a mighty toll. Being truly free is, in fact, quite terrifying, as it demands that we be responsible for making decisions, taking action and being held accountable for our choices.
Like yard work, gutter repair, or marriage, we will go to tremendous links to avoid that responsibility; to place that burden at the feet of others. If you’re honest with yourself (the first prerequisite of authenticity), consider how many times you have used your boss, or your senior leadership, to sell an unpopular project or initiative to your team: “This came down from management; we have to do it!” Sound familiar?
Living with Freedom
I have reminded more than one leader of a terrifying truth: assuming a leadership position means you agree to live with the anxiety of that freedom every waking moment. You—and no one else—are responsible for driving change, for having the difficult conversations and ensuring the business is moving in the direction it needs to move. If not you, who? If you take your laptop on family vacations, or schedule work calls during time-off, you are viscerally aware of the cost of this freedom. But living sincerely in the anxiety of that freedom is precisely what defines authenticity. Taking responsibility for the full body of our choices and decisions—this is what it means to be truly authentic.
And this is what makes leadership so hard. This is why you get the big bucks! If you want the title, the money and the pathway of promotion that leadership brings, make sure you’re also willing to wear the yoke of responsibility—responsibility to make and to abide by your decisions—that the title also implies. In short, be an authentic leader, and, in so being, gain the satisfaction and fearlessness that only comes when we know ourselves to be fully and completely in charge of our lives.
IMAGE: Wikipedia / Public Domain