There are a few occasions in our leadership workshops, especially with young and mid-level high potential managers, that the conversation turns to ‘authenticity’, and more times than not, I end up wincing or face palming myself.
I hear comments like: “I find it hard to be authentic at work because I’m a creative person but my boss wants me to do things by the book, even if there’s a smarter way. That saps my motivation”
This is not a conversation about authenticity. It’s a victim story, the subconscious purpose of which is selling ineffective communication and poor stakeholder management with one’s boss as a subjugation of ‘authenticity’ by ‘them’.
We need to redefine authenticity so that it’s a helpful concept, rather than a distracting one.
Authenticity is not about doing what comes easily or naturally to you.
If you felt like pooping just now would you poop in your pants and then say ‘I was being authentic, I did what my body felt like doing’?
Of course you wouldn’t. You’d tighten your sphincter muscles, waddle as fast as you humanly could to the nearest toilet, and mutter a little prayer on the way there. You would do what was uncomfortable because the consequences of doing what felt natural was unacceptable to you.
It bears repeating. Authenticity is not about doing what comes easily or naturally to you.
A tennis player cries after he’s won or lost the final point of the Wimbledon final, not before. He keeps his emotions under tight control so that he can harness them rather than let his lips quiver. A good husband doesn’t hit his wife in a fight and call it authenticity because that’s what he had an angry urge. Authenticity would be taking a walk to cool off so that he doesn’t do or say anything hurtful to the person he loves.
Authenticity is about making decisions that are consistent with what your priorities and with what is most important to you. Authenticity is about doing what is required to produce the outcomes that are meaningful to you. It may be doing something that comes naturally to you. But it may be doing something that is very hard and uncomfortable for you.
A mother who lies to a terrorist about where her children are hiding may be factually dishonest.. but completely authentic. In that she is making a decision based on what is important to her. The fact that her words are lies is not relevant to the well of authenticity they spring from.
People sometimes focus only on natural strengths when they talk about authenticity. But discipline is the ability to do what is hard or even unnatural because it is required, and it is the other side of authenticity, the side that young and mid-level high potential managers do not appreciate yet when they speak about authenticity.
Whether the manager we spoke about earlier sees her personal authentic style as innovative or ‘by the book’ is irrelevant and a self indulgent distraction. The relevant question is ‘what is the best approach in this specific case?’ She needs to have an open conversation with her boss in which they reach an agreement. If she does not convince her boss, then she needs to do it her boss’ way and commit to that method.
But holding onto the ‘I just want to be authentic’ story is a misunderstanding of what authenticity is.
Authenticity is often about doing things that come naturally to you.
But it is also just as much about doing things that are very hard, unfamiliar, unnatural, and uncomfortable.
This is rarely a conversation that comes up when we coach CEOs.
Those who reach the top are the ones who have understood this.