How authentic are you? By some peoples’ standards, if you simply speak every thought you have, however petty, mean or hurtful, you are being authentic. But for most of us, that version of “authenticity” seems a lot like being immature and irresponsible. Of course, if everything you say sounds as though it was scripted by a self-help guru, that just doesn’t ring “real”. So what is real authenticity, especially for leaders?
In academic and philosophic circles, authenticity has been on the table for decades, beginning as far back as Rousseau in the 18th century. Over the centuries, the term “authenticity” has evolved through two distinct meanings. In its early use it meant to be honest or sincere, and was focused on our treatment of other people. During later generations, Heidegger and others used it to mean being true to one’s self as opposed to one’s neighbor. Today, we still use the term to talk about being true to one’s self. But the question should arise, which self?
In Heidegger’s work he meant something quite specific. He was suggesting that who we are is a matter of choice. If we have a chosen self, it is not just whatever comes naturally to us; it is instead a self of our design and selection. Our “created” self is comprised of our chosen values, commitments, and principles. It is profound and inspiring, and embodies the highest aspirations we can muster, whether spiritual, religious or philosophical. But as we all know, there is still an automatic natural self that is there all the time without any effort. My own natural self is often petty and self-centered, judgmental, mean and jealous. Yours may include unique, but equally unattractive traits. As far as I can tell, my natural self is deeply entrenched and stubborn – with no sign of abating. And if I were committed to voicing my natural self’s thoughts at all times there would be significant fallout – the final result of which would render me friendless, lonely and ashamed. That form of authenticity wouldn’t work except as an emotional release valve. As it happens, part of being human is to vacillate and sometimes wrestle between alternate versions of our selves – the selves we are proud of and those we hide. As leaders, we must contend with this dichotomy of selves as we explore what it means to be an authentic leader.
So what are we to make of this “two self problem”? What is authentic leadership? Is it the radical honesty of saying whatever our natural self puts into our head? There is some evidence that that style of leadership has a certain appeal or cache. Well, if we are to consider Heidegger and his intellectual descendants, the answer is no, that is not what he meant by authentic.
In order to discover the authentic, created you, consider the world after you have died. What would you choose to leave behind as your lasting impression? What qualities would generate that impression, or impact? You can consider the question in any of the different arenas in which you dwell and lead: Your family, relationship, workplace, company, church, community or the world. What is the vision you have for a personal or professional legacy? Is your legacy one of kindness or spite, of generosity or stinginess, of those you lead emerging empowered or cowed? Whatever answer you come up with will reflect the values you embrace and qualities you respect and aspire to have. For most of us the world we would like to engender is better than the one we have. Every business leader with whom I have worked has truly wanted his employees to grow, learn, succeed and excel. To a person, they have been profoundly concerned with empowering their staff, emboldening their families and improving the world in some way. But because they are human beings like you and me, they also have a natural and primitive self that is at times mean, grudging, intolerant or stingy. That just isn’t the one that speaks or acts as a leader.
Instead, they practice discipline in trying only to give voice to their created selves. They are authentic to their commitments and to their values, not to whatever thought comes into their heads. Thoughts are not actions, and you can safely think lots of things that are inconsistent with your calling, your principles and your goals. But policing what you say and how you behave so as to fulfill your vision is true authenticity. The idea, however, is not to fake anything. When our baser selves are at play, sometimes the greatest act of authenticity is to admit to those very mental gremlins. No one is without them. But sharing one’s humanity as weakness is distinct from sharing one’s crass thoughts as opinions worth emboldening. You won’t always succeed in figuring out how to be authentic without being fake — or in how to be genuine while taking responsibility for your reflexes and pettiness. Like any discipline it takes practice and sometimes we fail. But as we aspire toward this form of authenticity, all we can do is practice and periodically clean up the messes we inadvertently create. Fortunately, our minds are endlessly expansive and can entertain our basest impulses without our voicing or acting on them. Moreover, those thoughts that we might even be ashamed to admit we have, can give us access to shared intimacy, and can coexist with the created self; the self that is committed to great leadership and a legacy that embodies those values. As a bonus, authenticity in this form also returns to us deep satisfaction and joy. So practice being authentic to your created self. That’s the you that is truly you.
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