Authenticity has become a focal point in leadership circles and with good reason. We can spot a charlatan with their buzz words and focus groups, driven by making the best impression a mile off. Chances are whether you are a fan of English literature or not, you’ve heard of William Shakespeare. You may have even quoted him (or a version of his words), from the play Hamlet that lives on today.
“This above all: To thine own self be true And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst be false to any man.“
At some level, we know that being authentic works, and yet it is easy to fall short of it. We give in to other’s expectations of us, perceived or otherwise. We sell out on our values and sacrifice our authenticity on the altar of looking good. Who are we focused on looking good for? The answer is Others.
More than one way to skin a cat
Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there is more than one way to look at what it is to be authentic. The word authentic means:- of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine. Authenticity is also based on facts, it’s accurate and reliable. We humans are outstanding at intuitively knowing that something or someone is not the ‘real deal’. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink – The power of thinking without thinking, “The adaptive unconscious does an excellent job of sizing up the world, warning people of danger, setting goals, and initiating action in a sophisticated and efficient manner”. Moreover, we make these decisions in split seconds and with remarkable accuracy. This absolutely applies to authenticity.
The need to belong
So you would think, it’s in everyone’s interest to be real. We know that isn’t true, but why is that the case? Human beings have a strong need to belong and to be accepted by the group. We evolved in groups, which is why there is safety in numbers, and therefore, the need to fit in is strong. We are also born helpless, immobile and require nurturing for an extended period of time. Our very survival depends on the protection and therefore, the approval of the group. What’s more, we learn through modelling behaviour as opposed to being hard-wired like the majority of species on the planet; this is also one of the reasons humans dominate the Earth.
Approval seeking behaviour
We are also taught from a very young age to seek validation from outside ourselves. First, our parents or caregivers tell us what to do, how to behave and what’s acceptable. We very quickly learn what behaviour gets us approval and what doesn’t. This is the beginning of approval-seeking behaviour. It’s the beginning of doing what’s required rather than what we desire innately. Also, when we constantly need to ask someone else’s permission before doing anything, we erode our ability to think for ourselves over time. This process, that first begins with our parents is reinforced by our teachers; we learn to delegate our agency, to our bosses and then authority figures in general. If you don’t ‘play the game’ you don’t reap the reward, get the promotion or the girl etc. You get the idea. So, we learn to behave in ways that we think are desirable and internalise those behaviours.
To rediscover your authentic self, it can be necessary to chip away at everything ‘added’, that is ‘not you’. Famously, Michel Angelo was asked how he created the marvellous statue Davide, and his response was he removed everything that was not David. Seems logical enough and easy enough to apply to ourselves. And, eliminating everything that is not you requires you to think for yourself and to decide for yourself, undoing years of programming. Whether you like it or not, you have been domesticated, and your values and behaviours are primarily inherited, absorbed through the culturescape. These are no longer needed to dictate your behaviour, you have absorbed it: It runs on automatic. The word Authentic also shares its roots with author, so authenticity has something to do with authorship as well. To author is to create.
You as the authority
The pathway to authenticity then has much to do with you taking charge of how you show up and consciously choosing who you are and how to act, according to your rules. You, expertly authored by YOU. Interestingly, it shares it’s roots with authority too. For you to be genuinely authentic, become THE authority in your world. Design yourself from the inside out. To be THE authority means that you no longer put your responsibility and accountability outside of you. It means trusting yourself. It also means actively deciding your values and holding yourself accountable to them. To do so requires a high degree of honesty with yourself. It requires a high degree of awareness. Only then can you indeed be authentic in the totality of what it means.
Be true to yourself, and you will naturally be true to others.