What Does It Mean to be Authentic?
If there’s only one thing that we’ve learned as a result of the Brexit vote, it’s that people are fed up with the lack of transparency among their leaders. This should come as no surprise, because when it comes to democracy, prime ministers and presidents alike are supposed to work for the electorate; not the other way around. In that sense at least, they aren’t leaders, but instead are our representatives. We vote to put them into positions of authority so that they can do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves.
This same revolt has been witnessed of late in the United States. It’s significant that the Republican candidate for president has never held an elected office. This is only the fourth time it has happened in US history. The last occasion occurred when Eisenhower became president in 1952.
There’s another name for transparency. It’s authenticity. We consider leaders to be authentic when they show us who they are; when they let us see behind the scenes; when they invite our input, and then act upon it. Those who aren’t authentic are considered to be counterfeit, corrupt, implausible, and unreliable.
The same authenticity, or lack thereof, holds true for leaders in organisations. We want to trust them, but we expect them to be trustworthy.
There’s a saying that when it comes to our leaders that they “put their trousers on the same way that you do – one leg at a time”.
What does that statement imply? It’s intended to convince us that they are no different from you and me.
That’s something that we all of us believe; however, there are leaders who don’t want you to think that way. Instead, they want you to cower in their presence and to be convinced that they are something special, that they are not beholden to your views, that you are there to do as you’re told and to keep your opinions to yourself.
It’s significant, however, that the Conservatives are talking about giving shareholders the power to enforce their will on company executives. Whether or not there is the political will to make it happen is another matter, but there’s no denying that it stresses the importance of authenticity.
Naturally, there are critics.
Years ago, a book entitled Fake It Until You Make It was published. The idea was that you should adopt the behaviour of the type of person that you wanted to become.
There is some truth to this, and so the idea shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand; but it depends on why and to what end you are changing your behaviour. Doing it in order to form better habits is one thing; but doing it so that you can mislead people is quite another.
Some people think that the latter reason should be the pattern for their behaviour. There’s another saying which expresses the problem clearly: “If you is what you ain’t, then you ain’t what you is”.
In other words, if you’re a liar, then you can’t be truthful.
If you’re inauthentic, then you can’t be authentic.
Blunt, isn’t it?
Here’s another pithy statement that’s been attributed to various sources: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”.
Those who are trying to “fake it until they make it” and for all the wrong reasons are the same bunch who are trying to fool everyone all the time.
And you know what? The only person that’s fooled is him - or herself.
Actors are probably the only group of people on earth who can consistently “be” someone else. They get away with it because we expect them to be someone else.
When you see Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie on the screen, you don’t see them as who they are; instead, you see them as the character that they are playing.
This is why it seems so bizarre when actors try to become politicians. They are trying to be themselves, and because we’re not accustomed to seeing them in that role, we think that they’ve been miscast.
This brings us to an important question.
How can you be authentic in your role as a leader?
You see, for all the critics on the reasons why you shouldn’t be authentic, we’ve seen time and time again that those who refuse to be that way are simply ignored by those who are supposed to follow them.
The politicians running the EU have discovered this, though they can hardly believe that it has actually happened; so have the elite Republicans in the United States. And this probably won’t be the end. As traditional, inauthentic structures are torn down and untrustworthy leaders are removed, new populist ones will take their place.
You may be tempted to hang onto the old, traditional inauthentic style of leadership that has been the mainstay of your tenure and hope that you’ll retire before everyone discovers what a phony you’ve been. The trouble with that approach is that it could all change overnight as so many people like you have recently discovered.
Alternatively, you could be your trustworthy self.
That’s what people are looking for.
Here’s a quick example of how to be inauthentic and how to turn it around.
How often have you heard a reporter suggest to a Minister that the opinion voiced in an interview was a new policy, or that that person had made a U-turn? And how often have you noticed that, despite it being patently obvious to anyone who was listening that this was true, that the same Minister denied that this was the case?
That’s a perfect illustration of what it means to be a faker; to be inauthentic.
That same Minister could earn huge respect among the electorate by admitting that it was a change in policy or that it was a U-turn. And there would be no need to apologise for doing so.
The decision could be based on new information. No one has all the answers. It’s perfectly reasonable to make a decision one day and then on the basis of what you learn decide that you should do something else. We do it all the time. There’s no reason why leaders shouldn’t.
The real damage is done, however, when they try to deny that they’ve changed their minds. Then they try to persuade us that they haven’t by pretending that we misunderstood them in the past.
When you make a mistake, then own it. That means that you need to be honest. Admit that the fault was yours. Apologise for it if that’s appropriate. Take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Repair the damage, and make amends.
If you decide to do something different, no mistake has been made, and there’s no damage, then explain why you have changed your mind. Own it. Tell your employees that you have done so.
This is what people expect from a leader who is truly authentic.
It’s what they expect from you.
If you want to be a more effective leader email me and let’s talk.