We live in a world where we are starving for authentic parents, leaders, mentors, friends and teachers. We strive to be our authentic selves but with time, we sometimes find it difficult to say what we mean because the message we see and hear ever so often has been to fit in and follow. Due to our conditioned responses over time, many of us are not willing to take an honest look at ourselves, speak our truth and say what we really mean in a respectful and considered manner. This resistance is based on a few factors- fear of embarrassment, being singled out, family programming, cultural and societal programming, etc
On the flipside, this article addresses a different concern and that is what authenticity isn’t about.
Authenticity vs Brutal Frankness
I have been prompted to write about this because of how I notice people using authenticity as an excuse for being blunt and downright rude. Basically being a bad excuse for lacking self control. You don’t have to get in someone’s face when you are authentic. I don’t hold the final key to what authenticity is but I do know it does involve sincerity, the truth, compassion and a willingness to come out of our protective shield that has been built up over the years that blocks us from truly going back to our essence. The Webster dictionary states that authenticity is the quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.
Trustworthiness is more clearly understood because we express these words to each other almost on a daily basis and hence have come to understand this as being consistent in one’s words and actions, fulfilling promises or being reliable. I guess the problem arises when authenticity is understood to be saying exactly what comes to one’s mind without reservation, without compunction, sensitivity and empathy because it just seems the right thing to do or say but without careful thought. I actually think this is quite easy to do… i.e. just get used to rattling off what you think to be right. You don’t have to edit, backspace or delete any words. Just say it as it is without reservation, just spill out exactly what appears in the head whether it’s been battered by a mixture of toxic and accumulated feelings of anger, disgust or irritation.
Let’s take the example of a leader who has noticed one of his staff slacking off lately, coming in late and slipping into an indifferent attitude. At stages of one’s career cycle, there are possibilities where people do retrogress and effective leaders recognize that their charges can fit into any one of these 4 categories. It could be that the staff has an 1) attitude problem, 2) aptitude problem, 3) competence problem or 4) a personal problem. The challenges in numbers 2-4 require careful consideration and inquiry with an attitude of care and concern. With the right mix of empathy and understanding, change does frequently take place.
Authenticity In Your Face!
In fact, authenticity is a quality that one should not identify in themselves and proclaim to the world how much they possess. It’s a quality that others attribute to you. Hence, someone who tries to teach authenticity better mirror it consistently and understand that his/her definition will be modelled through their own behaviors. Very recently, I experienced someone (X) attempting to tell another person (Y) how the latter’s life seemed topsy-turvy and attributed it to his own behaviors and attitude. This was done by helping the person notice past experiences, behaviors, and recognizing past/present language patterns.
What appalled me is the manner in which it was handled, i.e. straight in the face, running down, chiding and condemning with an air of arrogance, sending the impression the person was incorrigible and that the challenges were almost insurmountable. The barrage of damaging remarks were relentless. However, the rationale given for such straight-in-the-face-no-nonsense feedback was one of intentionality and authenticity. The danger lies in us holding on to such an arrogant and distorted definition of authenticity and believing that telling it as we see it and saying all there is to say in a no-holds- barred approach while putting putting empathy on pause mode is exactly what authenticity is all about. Yes, the truth will set us free but at what cost do we adopt such a despicable, insensitive approach. The very same victimizers will lay claim that ‘they just care enough’ to reveal all your blind spots.
Authenticity and Emotional Intelligence
What I notice in certain leaders is their genuine interest in others and how their behaviors are congruent with their intentions. When their charges are in distress, I have observed them patiently sorting through the underlying issues through an empathic process of inquiry rather than selfishly engaged in callous attacks, albeit doing it on the pretext of giving feedback. It sometimes looks more like a bashing session than the intended effect of raising one’s esteem and self-confidence. Authentic leaders are able to demonstrate 4 key EQ competencies in their approach, i.e. self awareness, empathy, managing their emotional state (practicing self-control) and being a source of motivation. In navigating through their charges’ issues, they skilfully blend these competencies while having their intended purpose at the back of their mind.
Who Lays Claim To Authenticity?
No leader should look into a mirror and say, “I am authentic.” A person cannot choose to behave in a certain way and believe it’s authentic because then it’s not. I have noticed people saying, “I am telling you everything you need to know about yourself and even though I am being utterly frank, I am just being authentic”. Someone who is authentic practices emotional intelligence with a genuine concern and care without the need for recognition and notice. They do it with the best of intentions with an awareness and sensitivity in their approach.
Authenticity is largely defined by what other people see and feel about you. If authenticity were purely an innate quality, there would be little you could do to manage it and, therefore, little you could do to make yourself more effective as a leader. However, while it resides deep inside us, our daily efforts at being real, respectful, intentional, caring, compassionate, sensitive and wanting to make a difference will bring out the very best in our quest to be authentic. It takes chipping at the edges to carve out your essence. It requires nurturing, a daily recognition of who you have been and who you haven’t, what you have done or otherwise and a constant vigilance of your daily choices. Authenticity is not a quality we acquire overnight but is nurtured over our life time.
I don’t pretend to have the final word on the subject, of course. Sociologists, philosophers, and social scientists have debated the concept of authenticity for centuries and it continues to shed light about how we come across to others by going back to our truth and innocence, a part of us that we seldom examine nowadays.