THE CASE FOR AUTHENTICITY
Todd Dewett | July 12, 2019
[This is part two of a five-part series addressing aspects of authenticity. A version of this article appeared in The Guru Book, edited by Jonathan Low.]
For many years there has been a lot of talk about the essence of leadership. Thinkers of all varieties have offered up their list of basic elements, forgotten secrets, and magic ingredients. Their essays and models speak of things such as trust, service, self-reflection, integrity, and so on. Without a doubt, these are very important concepts.
However, after years of research, reflection, and coaching I have concluded they are all missing something. For me, there is only one foundational catalyst that helps the other concepts spring to life in practice: authenticity. To be authentic is to strive to look, speak, and behave in a manner that reflects your personal thoughts, interests, and beliefs. It’s about openness and honesty as you express yourself and interact with your environment.
Authenticity exists on a spectrum. Too many of us exist at the low end. We don’t speak up. We choose not to share our real views. We feel anxiety about being open. A smaller group strives for the other end of the spectrum. They share pointed perspectives and personal stories. They discuss and sometimes delight in talking about the mistakes we all make. Thankfully, this form of frankness and openness most often elicits strong authenticity in response. Thus, the fire is started, rapport has begun.
For such a powerful elixir, surely the cost must be high. No. Authenticity does not cost you as much as an executive training program, not as much as a weekend seminar, and not even as much as a good leadership book. It’s free – if you have patience and the guts to open up a little.
So, let’s consider the case for authenticity.
Too much of a good thing can hurt
Social decorum matters. Putting your best foot forward is important. Understanding contextual norms is vital. In short, smart people know they must manage impressions, especially at work. That’s a good thing, right?
Managing impressions involves some combination of the following: talking about one’s accomplishments, refraining from saying anything that might be risky or making any references to one’s imperfections, complimenting others, feigning interest where there is none, and censoring disagreement or disgust in order to show respect or to preserve group harmony.
All of these are understandable in small amounts on occasion. However, they are typically very common, if not heavily overindulged. The result is predictable. You successfully share a limited and somewhat plastic version of yourself. You maintain largely uninformed views of others at work. The ultimate outcome is minimally satisfying and minimally productive relationships.
We are starving for authentic connection
We are naturally wired to desire real connections with other humans. This is partially why we love family and friends so dearly. This human need is seen as fundamental, right along with the need for food and safety. We need to belong. We need to have our voice heard. We need to feel that our most common human interactions matter and that they are not fake or overly contrived.
Unfortunately, too many people believe that at work you are to be “professional” and at home you can be “personal” – and never shall the two meet. As it turns out, this is not a useful perspective. Granted, you are not trying to make friends with everyone at work. That is unrealistic and potentially problematic. You are, however, supposed to strive to be more than merely professional. A little intentional authenticity amplifies your professional potential immensely. People want to believe in the person, not just the professional.
We fear that which makes us great
It takes a truly massive effort to reverse a natural human tendency. We are born with a strong desire to try new things, to explore, and to seek deep connections with others. Don’t believe me? Spend five minutes with a small child and you are sure to remember. When the child falls, they simply get up. When they break something, they keep moving. The exploration continues with glee. It’s the adults who make this process difficult and unnatural.
These same adults often say predictable things when talking about the virtues of humanity. They mention only bravery, strength, accomplishments, and other positive and safe notions. This of course is a very incomplete view of who we are. They passionately disavow the other half of the human experience: the mistakes, failures, uncertainties, and doubts.
Yet it’s these more difficult concepts that ultimately make us interesting. Surely great thoughts and great learning are fueled by our mistakes and failures. We must remember what that child within us knows about what it means to be human. You can unleash that child by helping realize the fears are false.
There is no monster under the bed
You have been told by an army of people that certain things are bad and to be avoided: failure, mistakes, setbacks, etc. The army is vast: parents, neighbors, teachers, colleagues, and bosses. Over time they beat you into submission and convince you there is a monster under your bed. It looms ever present, claws out, ready to pounce on you and make you consume another dose of self-hatred, fear, doubt, and shame.
In truth, there is no monster under the bed. In fact, that thing under the bed is actually your friend, possibly your best friend in life. What the successful people in life have taught us is that failure is an inevitable positive part of the learning process. Mistakes happen. Things don’t work out. So what. Everyone experiences these things. What differentiates the successful from the rest of us is how passionately they learn and grow as a result. They don’t ignore the monster. They tame the monster and make friends.
Step one on the path to success is embracing authenticity. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not risk-free. Some will always cling to the false distinction between “professional” and “personal.” You don’t need them. The more you take the risk of being authentic: honest, open, vulnerable; the more you attract authentic people and the more your tribe grows.
The path forward
It starts with a simple desire to increase your personal authenticity. You must consciously choose to bring more of the complete and raw you into every new situation. Through self-reflection, begin to take an inventory of how you’re doing. When are you good at being real? When do you tend to censor and why? The more you become aware and focused, the faster you gain comfort being you, and the less you feel compelled to manage impressions.
Next, begin to intentionally model authenticity for others. Start slow and safe by just putting one toe in the water. Ask about what they really think. Throw out a challenging perspective on a work topic and let them react. Ask them about their children. Tell them about a book that really moved you. As you begin to filter yourself a little less, others will reciprocate, and deeper connections become possible.
When others say something brave, don’t just offer a reaction – tell them you respect the bravery of their position. If someone mentions their weekend plans, be inquisitive. If they admit a vulnerability or recall a difficult moment, let them know how much you appreciate the gesture. Ask them about it. Seek to understand. Show appreciation. Reciprocate by slowly lowering your wall.
Choose one person
Your authenticity journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Consider starting with just one person in mind. It might be a colleague, your boss, a mentor, or even a client or vendor. Chose to find a new more honest way to let your humanity show when interacting with them. It might be a question, a topical focus you adopt, a comment about one of your interests, or just your curiosity about some aspect of who they are. Go slow and gain a new level of comfort with that one person. Then, try another person.
You might be surprised what you learn when you lower your defenses and reveal a little more of who you are as a person. After finding comfort, it may even become fun. Before long you’ll be jumping off of the bed regularly to play with that friend hiding beneath. It will change how you view your potential and the potential of those around you – and it doesn’t cost a penny!